Thursday, July 18, 2013

ACLU Documents Mass Tracking of Motorists By Government

The ACLU has released the findings of a year long investigation into the use of Automatic License Plate Readers(ALPR) by the government.  Documents obtained by 38 different states, including Maryland, revealed the use of the devices to record the movements of every vehicle past the devices, in some cases snapping photos, and recording the data about the movements of individual motorists for weeks, months, or even years. The ACLU compiled the data into a report entitled "You Are Being Tracked" and released the results of thousands of pages of FOIA(Freedom of Information Act) disclosures.


"License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will."

The ACLU obtained the documents under the federal Freedom Of Information Act and the various open records laws of 38 states.  A total of 587 requests were sent.  According to the report, 293 of the requests were responded to and 294 have NOT been responded to. A total of 26,000 pages of responsive records were obtained.

The report found that while the devices are claimed to be used only for law enforcement purposes (such as finding stolen vehicles or vehicles with warrants) the vast majority of vehicles recorded by the system are not guilty of any violation:
"In our records requests, documents from Maryland illustrate this point. Approximately three-quarters of Maryland’s law enforcement agencies are networked into Maryland’s state data fusion center, which collected more than 85 million license plate records in 2012 alone.  According to statistics compiled by the fusion center for that year to date through May:

  • Maryland’s system of license plate readers had over 29 million reads. Only 0.2 percent of those license plates, or about 1 in 500, were hits. That is, only 0.2 percent of reads were associated with any crime, wrongdoing, minor registration problem, or even suspicion of a problem. 
  • Of the 0.2 percent that were hits, 97 percent were for a suspended or revoked  registration or a violation of Maryland’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program"
The documents also revealed that out of ONE MILLION plates read in Maryland, only 47 were associated with a serious offense.  "Furthermore, even these 47 alerts may not have helped the police catch criminals prevent crimes.  While people on the violent gang, terrorist, and sex offender lists are under general suspicion, they are not necessarily wanted for any present wrongdoing"

The documents describe how local jurisdictions feed plate information into the state fusion center, the
Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC), and also participate in a regional database called the National Capital Region LPR Project (NCR).  Thus even if a local government purges the data from their own database after 30 days, these aggregated databases may still contain the information.  MCAC currently stores the data for up to a year.

Documents obtained from Montgomery County Maryland  show that the agencies have the ability to perform various types of "Data Mining".  This includes "cross searches" to evaluate which vehicles have been in two or more places at two or more different times, and "Convoy" searches, to identify which vehicles have been traveling "near" each other at a particular place and time.  Such searches are made against historic data, meaning that the data being searched is not on vehicles which were under any particular suspicion at the time the vehicle's movements were recorded.

Documents from the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control Prevention (GOCCP) discuss how "An ANPR photograph may include a facial image of the occuspant(s) of the car.  These images will usually require further work to identify the person(s) seen in the image."... The documents also describe the sensitivities of talking about ALPR to the press and to the public, including the desire to keep the locations where tracking takes place a secret: "In principle, ANPR evidence should not automatically be protected from disclosure.  However, some aspects of ANPR and its use may be considered sensitive because they relate to methods and techniques that the police and other agencies rely on to detect or prevent crime, for example, the location of fixed site cameras or methods of concealment of covert assets.  In these cases it may be appropriate to protect this aspect of the evidence"..."It has for some time, and continues to be desirable, for ANPR media inquiries to be answered as fully and openly as possible.  This is in order to ensure positive messages about the benefits of ANPR are communicated to the public and any public concerns about its use are allayed.  However, there are boundaries which we wound not wish to breach such as the specific locations of ANPR capture devices, the operational tactics employed and some of the analytically capabilities of the systems that we use to support ANPR.  Careful thought is, therefore, always needed when dealing with media inquiries."

Included in the document archive was the response to an MPIA request made by a Maryland ACLU attorney to MCAC for the list of locations where his own plate had been recorded.  The documents showed how this one plate, not associated with any crime, was recorded at locations in Anne Arundel County, Prince George's County, and Baltimore.  However the MCAC refused to provide the photos captured by the ALPR device or the exact location where the devices which captured the plate numbers were located.  **This means not only is the government tracking the movements of the general public, but that they are unwilling to let the general public know when and where they are being tracked.**

In August 2012 the Maryland chapter of the ACLU provided a template for individual motorists to request their own license plate data from MCAC.  You Can Download The Template to Request Your Own Plate Data from Maryland's Tracking Database Here.

NVLS "LPR Scan Density Map" for the DC region
Data from license plate scanners can also be fed into national databases run by private corporations, which may consider themselves to be exempt from whatever standards or regulations which local governments might set for themselves regarding privacy or use of the data.  For example, National Vehicle Location Services(NVLS) is run by a private company named Vigilant Video.  In 2010 a representative of Vigilant Video stated to the DC police that its "service" contained "over 100,000,000 unique vehicle locations" and that "Incoming Vehicle Location volume is almost 14,000,000 per month and rising"[....]  "The greater Washington DC area is well blanketed with scanning".

Such private databases can be used for other purposes, and be outside whatever regulations on the use of data and transparency.  In another email by DC police, they wrote about the Vigilant Video "Just so everyone is clear on what this is, this company repossesses cars.  They told me they accumulate all of the reads from their LPR-equipt vehicles that scour the streets looking for cars on their repo list." [...]"when I asked them questions about their privacy policy and the ACLU, they said that doesn't apply to them because the data was collected by a private company."

The ACLU has confirmed to us that only about half of public information act requests sent to local were responded to, and that a number of local governments in Maryland were among those which did not respond.

The ACLU has also decried the lack of transparency by some federal agencies, notably including the Department of Homeland Security.  "The Department of Homeland Security has to date provided zero information about how it has funded license plate reader acquisitions nationwide, even though open source media accounts from every part of the country demonstrate that it has played a significant role in funding acquisitions for state and local police departments." wrote the ACLU.  The ACLU has reportedly filed suit to force the release of ALPR related documents from DHS, including those related to DHS grants to fund ALPR equipment, and this suit is ongoing.

ACLU: You Are Being Tracked (FULL REPORT)
CNN: ACLU raises privacy concerns about police technology tracking drivers
TheNewsPaper.com: ACLU Report Exposes Extent Of License Plate Surveillance