The police know where you're driving

Departments have already begun deploying Orwellian license-plate reading technologies across the country

Published December 6, 2012 3:24PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet A building at 55 Broadway, in lower Manhattan, is home to the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, the locus of the New York Police Department's massive intelligence-gathering activities. According to a 2011 estimate, the facility integrates not only some 1,000 NYPD cameras located in lower Manhattan and some 700 cameras in midtown, but an additional 2,000 private surveillance cameras owned by Wall Street firms. These cameras are principally focused on capturing license plate data. The center cost an estimated $150 million to set up.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly endlessly tout the value of Manhattan’s "ring of steel," modeled after the security infrastructure of London’s financial district, they reveal little as to its role tracking car traffic in the city.  Both back the department’s Domain Awareness System (DAS), which can track individuals or incidents (e.g., a suspicious package) through live video feeds from some 3,000 CCTV cameras, 2,600 radiation substances detectors, check license plate numbers, pull up crime reports and cross-check all information against criminal and terrorist databases.

The NYPD is but one of a growing number of local and state police agencies throughout the country engaged in the non-stop tracking of car license plates. Most troubling, the data captured through license plate reader (LPR) and automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) programs are being integrated with other personal data to provide the security state with ever more detailed profiles of ordinary Americans.

Motorola is one of the major tech companies providing police agencies with ALPR products. The Moto system is used to track the “vehicle of interest” by a police officer in a squad car. The captured data is integrated into the back-office system software, or BOSS. The system incorporates diverse data sets, including full or partial plate numbers, GPS coordinates, time and day, photographs and more. Equally critical, the system allows data to be shared among multiple locations and agencies.

Federal Signal‘s PIPS Technology of Knoxville, Tenn., is probably the largest supplier of ALPR technology. Other suppliers include ELSAG North America of Brewster, NY; MVTRAC of Palatine, Ill.; and San Francisco-based PoliceOne.

The federal government is the principal funder of car tracking. According to the FBI, its Criminal Justice Information Services Division (CJIS) approved LPR in June 2004. As of September 2011, “46 states, the District of Columbia, 33 local agencies, and one federal agency have formal agreements with the FBI to receive the NCIC information for the purpose of using LPRs.”

The LPR program is part of the larger National Crime Information Center (NCIC) that “enables law enforcement and the intelligence communities to identify terrorists, apprehend fugitives, locate missing persons, identify unidentified persons, recover stolen property, and protect innocent persons.”

As recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies over the past five years. It noted “a 2010 study estimates that more than a third of large U.S. police agencies use automated plate-reading systems.”

State police agencies and local law enforcement authorities throughout the country are actively engaged in license plate tracking. In Washington, D.C., some 250 tracking cameras are in operation. According to the ACLU of Washington, 18 police departments in the state have deployed them. In Maryland, some 320 LPRs are in use and scanned license plate data, including even non-criminal information, is collected by the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center. (The Center, while its website has e-mail and phone contacts, provides no address.)

In New York, the state police reported in 2010 that its auto-theft unit had tracked over 57,000 licenses. The outcome: It located a whopping three stolen cars and 200 revoked or suspended license registrations.

The Memphis, Tenn., police have implemented the SkyCop, the Mobile License Plate Recognition & Video Surveillance System (MLPRV). The police champion it as “a platform to provide mobile, on the fly, license plate reading, video surveillance and analysis.” The police proclaim the system “incorporates all of today’s advanced technologies to provide on board storage, and remote access for database updates, data offload, and video records retrieval.”

The squad car cop now has access to vehicle registration info as well as information about people driving with outstanding warrants, in stolen vehicles, with revoked licenses, stolen plates and stolen renewal licenses. Officers have access to information about “sex offenders” and “known gangsters,” neither of which have outstanding warrants. The Memphis police proclaim, “All of this information is provided instantly to the officer while they operate their vehicle, without any user action.”

License plate tracking is also playing out in suburbia. In the comfortable New Jersey community of Maplewood, the local police are implementing an LPR system costing $29,498.51. The local police captain, John Perna, noted that “the cameras are able to read license plates passing the car or behind the car.” He also pointed out that the system scans license-plate numbers through a NCIC database, thus instantaneously comparing plate numbers to any vehicle plate number that has been flagged as “wanted” for a crime throughout the country. 

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), U.S. courts do not recognize privacy rights with regard to a license plate. However, a series of court rulings have begun to spotlight violation of GPS tracking in cars. In the recent U.S. v. Jones, the Supreme Court was unanimous in throwing out a defendant’s conviction for drug trafficking when evidence to convict him was obtained through a GPS tracking device on his car, a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy protections.

EPIC identifies a series of recent federal judicial rulings challenging the warrantless use of GPS tracking. Rulings in Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York suggest how challenges to unlimited tracking, including LPR monitoring, are gaining ground. A federal judge of the Eastern District of New York noted, "The fiction that the vast majority of the American population consents to warrantless government access to the records of a significant share of their movements by 'choosing' to carry a cell phone must be rejected…” And he added: “In light of drastic developments in technology, the Fourth Amendment doctrine must evolve to preserve cell-phone user's reasonable expectation of privacy in cumulative cell-site-location records."

While warrantless tracking is a troubling issue, a second factor is often overlooked – how long can law enforcement agencies keep the LPR and other information collected? There seems to be no established regulations as to this issue, with local and state police employing vastly different standards. For example, the Tiburon police retain data for 30 days  But the state police in California and Washington hold information for up to 60 days; in Maryland and Tennessee it's one year. However, the New York State Police has no limit for LPR data retention.

License plate tracking is just one example of the growing phenomenon of personal monitoring involving both commercial entities and government agencies. In addition to police and other government entities, tracking is omnipresent in our digitally networked life.

The nation’s leading wireless service providers are collecting and selling customer data to insurance companies. Companies run by "repo men" are collecting LPR data to go after car repossessions and other failures to pay efforts.

By David Rosen

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a public affairs consultancy specializing in the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him @firstpersonpol.

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