Privacy SOS

On surveillance tech grants for police: the federal government’s unspoken quid pro quo

As I explain in another blog published last week, despite 2012 records requests to the Departments of Justice, Transportation and Homeland Security, we weren’t able to discern exactly how much money the federal government has granted to state and local law enforcement for the purchase of license plate readers nationwide. Apparently, when it comes to police grants, the feds don’t keep very detailed records about what’s done with their money.

A 2012 report by Senator Tom Coburn on the DHS Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant program provides good insight into that problem, pointing out that DHS does not require grantees to provide line item budget reports about how its funds were spent. To learn about how agencies spent those funds, Coburn’s staff had to go from the bottom up, asking individual departments for records containing details about grant spending. That's not a very efficient means of investigation — and makes highly unlikely the emergence of hard statistics about the impact of federal funding programs nationwide.

But it was through this kind of bottom-up investigation that Coburn’s office learned that DHS funding included monies for license plate readers:

In Louisiana, Jefferson Parish officials sought to spend nearly $45,000 for license plate readers that have been used not to stop terrorists, but to catch car thieves.

While most of the details in the Coburn report come from local agencies, the Senator reported that the DHS Inspector General tracked down some funds spent on license plate readers. But Coburn was not pleased to discover that DHS did not measure how grant funds achieved terrorism-related public safety gains. His report comments:

Audits conducted by the DHS Inspector General (IG) reveal serious shortcomings about the benefit of certain expenditures. For example, a recent IG audit on UASI grant funding revealed that a Californian urban area purchased a license plate reader system for $6.2 million but could not explain how this acquisition identified or contributed to the prevention or investigation of terrorist attacks. Instead, the system was used to locate stolen cars or to identify vehicles with excessive traffic violations. As the IG report pointed out, measuring the contribution this program made toward first responder preparedness might include data on the number of stolen vehicles recovered or suspects apprehended, and how the system contributed to the investigation of a terrorist incident that was prevented or actually occurred. However, neither the State nor the urban area had established such indicators.

The Department of Homeland Security's funding helped with stolen car recovery, apparently. But was that all it did?

Documents returned to the ACLU by ICE suggest that ‘indicators’ of anti-terrorism success may not be what DHS is after when it funds local department acquisitions of license plate readers. That’s because, regardless of whether or not those local departments catch any terrorists with license plate readers, the federal government often gets a very specific and significant return on its investment when it showers state and local law enforcement with money for license plate readers. It gets data – a lot of data.

ICE and the FBI have lots of agents, but the police officer population in the United States dwarfs their numbers. These federal agents are not in every county and town in the United States, and so they are not in an ideal position to collect detailed data about the movements of motorists at the local level. But nearly every city and town has a police department. Therefore when the federal government gives out money to state and local law enforcement for the purchase of electronic fingerprint or license plate readers, those very same federal agencies are likely to reap the long term benefit of access to exponentially more massive data pools containing information from every city, county and state than anything they could collect on their own.

Give, and you shall receive. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.