July 17, 2013

ACLU: Police recording license plates by the millions

Maine is among the states that limit how long plate information can be stored, but scanner activity is increasing everywhere.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — You can drive, but you can't hide.

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Officer Dennis Vafier of the Alexandria Police Department uses a laptop in his squad car to scan vehicle license plates during his patrols Tuesday in Alexandria, Va.

The Associated Press

Related Documents

Read the ACLU report

LAWMAKERS THREATEN TO REIN IN GOVERNMENT'S REACH

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers of both parties expressed deep skepticism Wednesday about the government's bulk collection of Americans' telephone records and threatened not to renew the legislative authority that has been used to sanction a program described as "off the tracks legally."

A congressional backlash appeared to be coalescing around the idea that the administration's interpretation of its powers far exceeds what lawmakers intended. At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers forcefully pressed officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to justify the government's collection and storage of the communications records of vast numbers of Americans.

"This is unsustainable, it's outrageous and must be stopped immediately," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who sponsored the Patriot Act that ostensibly authorized the collection, warned that the House might not renew Section 215 of the act, a key provision that gives the government its authority.

The sharp and sometimes angry questioning stood in sharp contrast to the tone of hearings on the surveillance programs by congressional intelligence committees in recent weeks. It also came as the government faces a growing number of legal challenges to its collection of "metadata" -- information about the numbers called by Americans, the date and time of the calls, and how long those calls lasted.

Intelligence officials insist that the program operates under tight guidelines, is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and has proven crucial to disrupting terrorist plots.

Although many questions remain, administration officials offered new details about the methodology used to analyze the data. For the first time, they suggested that when the government queries its database of phone records -- as it did 300 times last year -- it was likely looking at the phone records of huge numbers of individuals.

"The court has approved us to go out two or three 'hops,"' said NSA deputy director John Inglis. "And it's often at the second hop that information is gained that leads the FBI to investigate the person's contacts further."

A "hop" refers to the way in which analysts broaden their analysis. When analysts believe they have cause to suspect an individual, they will look at everyone that person has contacted, called the first "hop" away from the target. Then they look at everyone all those secondary people communicated with. And from that pool, they go on to look at everyone all those tertiary people contacted. These are called second and third "hops."

The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said the NSA has been trying to make it seem like it peeks at the communications of a tiny subset of people, but with such hops, it has reviewed the communication patterns of millions of individuals.

"The first hop takes you to 100 people the person called," Jaffer said. "The second one takes you to 10,000. The third one takes you to a million."

"I think very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reined in," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

-- The Washington Post

A rapidly growing network of police cameras is capturing, storing and sharing data on license plates, making it possible to stitch together people's movements whether they are stuck in a commute, making tracks to the beach or up to no good.

For the first time, the number of license tag captures has reached the millions, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely, saying they can be crucial in tracking suspicious cars, aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more.

Attached to police cars, bridges or buildings — and sometimes merely as an app on a police officer's smartphone — scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and pinpoint their locations, uploading that information into police databases.

Over time, it's unlikely many vehicles in a covered area escape notice. And with some of the information going into regional databases encompassing multiple jurisdictions, it's becoming easier to build a record of where someone has been and when, over a large area.

While the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a judge's approval is needed to use GPS to track a car, networks of plate scanners allow police effectively to track a driver's location, sometimes several times every day, with few legal restrictions. The ACLU says the scanners are assembling a "single, high-resolution image of our lives."

"There's just a fundamental question of whether we're going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the organization. The group is proposing that police departments immediately delete any records of cars not linked to any crime.

Although less thorough than GPS tracking, plate readers can produce some of the same information, the group says, revealing whether someone is frequenting a bar, joining a protest, getting medical or mental help, being unfaithful to a spouse and much more.

In Minneapolis, for example, eight mobile and two fixed cameras captured data on 4.9 million license plates from January to August 2012, the Star Tribune reported. Among those whose movements were recorded: Mayor R.T. Rybak, whose city-owned cars were tracked at 41 locations in a year.

A Star Tribune reporter's vehicle was tracked seven times in a year, placing him at a friend's house three times late at night, other times going to and from work — forming a picture of the dates, times and coordinates of his daily routine. Until the city temporarily classified such data late last year, anyone could ask police for a list of when and where a car had been spotted.

As the technology becomes cheaper and more widespread, even small police agencies are able to deploy more sophisticated surveillance systems. The federal government has been a willing partner, offering grants to help equip departments, in part as a tool against terrorism.

Law enforcement officials say the scanners are strikingly efficient. The state of Maryland told the ACLU that troopers could "maintain a normal patrol stance" while capturing up to 7,000 license plate images in a single eight-hour shift.

"At a time of fiscal and budget constraints, we need better assistance for law enforcement," said Harvey Eisenberg, assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland.

(Continued on page 2)

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