Privacy SOS

Drug war provides cover for retroactive surveillance without probable cause

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Watch the video above to see how license plate scanner technology works. What the officer in the video doesn't tell viewers is that the captured plate data he is obtaining can be stored, shared and used to retroactively map motorists' travel patterns or determine which cars were in a given area at a certain time and date. Learn more about how ALPR technology works and the threats it poses to our liberty here.

"As California goes, so goes the nation."

If the saying is true, we can all say goodbye to privacy on the open road.

An army of license plate scanners is quietly being deployed throughout cities and towns all across the United States, largely funded by opaque federal grant streams and operated by federal, state and local police. In California, the San Mateo Sheriff's office is teaming up with the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and the regional fusion center to create a giant license plate database that will store into the hundreds of millions of records, showing where ordinary people have traveled and when, all available to agencies far outside of California at the push of a button. 

The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) — the regional surveillance shop where local police pool their criminal and non-criminal intelligence and sit next to representatives from private security companies, federal agencies and the military — is at the center of these big plans for a regional license plate scanner network. The design could be a model for other regional license plate data sharing programs; unfortunately, it's a privacy nightmare.

The primary objectives of the project include the consolidation of ALPR data from multiple police departments in five counties; the coordination of targeting and information sharing within the region; and the creation of a feature that will enable police to receive alerts via text message or email when "a read on a plate from his/her target list enters the system" somewhere in those five counties. 

The Northern California surveillance center aims to create a license plate data matrix from which no one in the Bay Area will be able to escape.

In an NCRIC Q&A posted for companies bidding on the contract to build the regional system, the agency says its

…initial focus is integration of the Bay Area and Northern California Law Enforcement ALPR databases and systems. Once that has been accomplished, we will reevaluate the technology available, cost of expansion, and value of additional systems. 
The NCRIC plans to make the license plate data from 5 counties in Northern California available to multiple agencies and "individuals," including those based outside California. Officials say they want the system to be able to hold at least 150 million records at a time, with built-in capacity for expansion. 
At present, 22 police departments contribute plate data to the server, but the NCRIC wants the system to be able to accommodate an additional 10 agencies per year, possibly including outside federal agencies or private corporations, pending information sharing agreements. It specifically stipulates that the system must be accessible to agencies outside of Northern California, presumably including federal law enforcement agencies like CBP, ICE, FBI and DEA.
License plate readers on a police cruiser in Massachusetts, above.
Access to the plate information will be granted via a number of different data-sharing systems already in widespread use at fusion centers nationwide, including Palantir's, a major data mining firm:
Primary access to the database will be via a separate Intelligence Management System’s front end, such as COPLINK, ARIES, or PALANTIR. Thus it is necessary for the unified dataset to be available for queries or consumption from these platforms…. Our initial request is for up to 200 accounts, with an expected use of 5% concurrent logins. Any limitations on user accounts or cost per growth should be indicated in the proposal.
The license plate reader data systems currently in operation in Northern California are maintained by the following companies, in bold text. Note that the Northern California surveillance center already has access to all of these databases; the request for proposals is seeking bids for a project to combine all of the databases into one, and to make it easier for outside agencies to search through and map all of it.
Nearly every one of the currently identified databases to integrate are various versions of solutions by: Federal Signal PIPS, Vigilant Video, and Platescan
West Bay (San Francisco and San Mateo Counties): 5 Agencies,  1 Federal Signal BOSS server
East Bay (Contra Costa and Alameda Counties):  7 Agencies, 1 consolidated hosted database
South Bay (Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito Counties):  10 Agencies, 8 databases, combination of PIPS and Platescan
Crucially, the NCRIC notes that police departments that operate their own license plate data servers will not be required to join in the regional data sharing program, opening up possibilities for advocacy at the local level. (Note to activists in the Bay who are interested in such a project: we took on ALPR data sharing in Brookline, MA and won. Click here for more information on that.)
Communities in the Bay Area that opt out of the data sharing agreements with regional fusion centers and federal agencies will still be able to deploy license plate scanners to hunt for stolen cars and find people with outstanding warrants. But they'll be able to remove themselves and their travel data from a growing matrix of information that has rooted itself in the surveillance apparatus of nearly every law enforcement agency in the nation, from the very top to the very bottom, thereby protecting motorists' privacy from a rapidly growing threat to our freedom on the open road.
Federal LPR expansion

License plate reader data consolidation is happening nationwide, and the drug war provides a convenient alibi for police far from Northern California.

The Drug Enforcement Agency is using plate readers in a number of states along the southwest border in its "Project Roadrunner," an "integrated license plate reader recognition system which will target both north- and southbound drug trafficking and associated illegal activity" in the southwest, with plans to expand to major highway systems in the northeast.

Like police in Northern California, the drug warriors at the DEA have admitted that they are storing all captured license plate data in a centralized database, the better to retroactively surveil the millions of drivers who encounter their machines. The DEA even wants to buy license plate scanners for a number of Central and Latin American countries to create a "regional license plate reader system" on international steroids.

The drug war also serves as the inspiration for one of the first publicly revealed license plate data collaborations between local police and federal agencies. DHS boasts that it is operating a license plate data mapping program in cooperation with Tucson police, wherein they:

Deployed the Spatial Temporal Visualization (STV) and Criminal Activity Network (CAN) visualization toolset to the Tucson Police Department. The STV tool enables crime analysts to plot suspicious or criminal incidents near critical infrastructure and explore distribution of those incidents by time period while the CAN visualization tool integrates CBP License Plate Reader data with a local criminal record set to reveal links among subjects who routinely crossed the border and are known offenders in the Tucson region.

License plate scanners operated by Customs and Border Protection, a division of DHS, clock and record cars entering and leaving the United States. CBP agents check every license plate against the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), also known as the Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS). The captured license plate data is likely stored in TECS/IBIS, adding yet more information about ordinary people's travel patterns into the large, unaccountable and opaque database. Thanks in part to programs like Secure Communities, local police will soon have access to all of this data about us at routine traffic stops. 

The federal government has doled out tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars to cities and towns nationwide for the purchase of license plate scanner systems. In Massachusetts, the federal Department of Transportation provided grant money enabling over 40 towns to purchase the technology. In other states, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have paid for the creeping ALPR revolution in policing. It's hard to say exactly how much money the federal government has poured into these programs altogether, because the money for the scanners has come from so many different grant programs and technology funding streams. 

Unfortunately, stopping the flow of unrestricted funds from the federal government to local police departments is a high bar we are unlikely to meet in the current political climate. But there's hope at the local level. If you are interested in taking on the issue of license plate data consolidation and retention at the local level, get in touch or check out this page for resources to help get you started. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.