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

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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

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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

Law enforcement officials say the technology automates a practice that's been around for years. The ACLU found that only five states have laws governing license plate readers. New Hampshire, for example, bans the technology except in narrow circumstances, while Maine and Arkansas limit how long plate information can be stored.

"There's no expectation of privacy" for a vehicle driving on a public road or parked in a public place, said Lt. Bill Hedgpeth, a spokesman for the Mesquite Police Department in Texas. The department has records stretching back to 2008, although the city plans next month to begin deleting files older than two years.

In Yonkers, N.Y., just north of New York City's Bronx, police said retaining the information indefinitely helps detectives solve future crimes. In a statement, the department said it uses license plate readers as a "reactive investigative tool" that is only accessed if detectives are looking for a particular vehicle in connection with a crime.

"These plate readers are not intended nor used to follow the movements of members of the public," the department said.

Even so, the records add up quickly. In Jersey City, N.J., for example, the population is 250,000, but the city collected more than 2 million plate images in a year. Because the city keeps records for five years, the ACLU estimates that it has some 10 million on file, making it possible for police to plot the movements of most residents, depending upon the number and location of the scanners.

The ACLU study, based on 26,000 pages of responses from 293 police departments and state agencies across the country, found that license plate scanners produced a small fraction of "hits," or alerts to police that a suspicious vehicle had been found.

In Maryland, for example, the state reported reading about 29 million plates between January and May of last year. Of that number, about 60,000 — or roughly 1 in every 500 license plates — were suspicious. The main offenses: a suspended or revoked registration, or a violation of the state's emissions inspection program, altogether accounting for 97 percent of alerts.

Even so, Eisenberg, the assistant U.S. attorney, said the program has helped authorities track 132 wanted suspects and can make a critical difference in keeping an area safe.

Also, he said, Maryland has rules in place restricting access. Most records are retained for one year, and the state's privacy policies are reviewed by an independent board, Eisenberg noted.

At least in Maryland, "there are checks, and there are balances," he said.

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