WASHINGTON — Fast on the heels revelations of dragnet surveillance devices used by the likes of the National Security Agency and the CIA, another set of tools used by local police in communities across the United States is invading the privacy of the American public, tracking their movements.
“If you were to put an automatic license plate reader next to a road that people have to use to get to a demonstration, you could have a list of every single person who attended that demonstration. That’s really concerning,” Nadia Kayyali, a digital rights activist and lawyer, told MintPress News.
An automatic license plate reader (ALPR) is a high-speed camera that reads and captures an image of every license plate that comes into its view. Like biometric collection devices and “Stingrays,” ALPRs are just one of the devices used by local police to track, identify and monitor Americans.
ALPRs, privacy and the Fourth Amendment
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and local police to procure ALPRs, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported last month.
The ACLU’s website states that ALPRs are being used by the NHTSA for highway safety purposes, but it is unclear whether law enforcement agencies might also be using them for non-safety purposes.
“The NHTSA should not be funding police technology for surveillance purposes and it should not let law enforcement apply for funding to decrease traffic fatalities and then turn around and use those funds to track people not suspected of any crime,” wrote Bennett Stein of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police conducted a privacy impact assessment of ALPRs in 2009. They found that there are no uniform policies police departments have to abide when using the technology. Ultimately, the IACP concluded, this could result in the technology being “mismanaged or misinterpreted with real-world consequences.”
The IACP report continues: “Moreover, the potential misuse of [license plate reader] LPR data may expose agencies operating such systems to civil liability and negative public perceptions.”
One effect of ALPRs, which the report describes as “chilling,” is their potential to leverage surveillance as a form of social control.
“Specifically, the risk is that individuals will become more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance,” states the report.
ALPRs can also record and collect intimate details about people’s lives, such as their attendance at meetings for addiction or counseling, doctor visits, and participation at political protests, explains the report.
“It’s similar to phone metadata, that especially when you are keeping this data for a long time and you are putting it in a database you can actually end up getting a lot of information about somebody,” Kayyali said, referencing revelations by Edward Snowden in 2013 that the NSA was spying on Americans. The bulk collection of this data by the NSA was ruled as unlawful by a U.S. appeals court in May of this year.
Kayyali told MintPress the Fourth Amendment is intended to protect citizens from this kind of surveillance, noting: “The principle of the issue that if you’re not doing anything wrong you shouldn’t have to be concerned that government is recording all your movement.”
“We have privacy as a way to guard against government overreach,” she asserted.
Biometrics and “Stingrays”
Other devices being employed by various law enforcement agencies across the country, including biometric collection devices and “Stingrays.’’
Biometric devices are gadgets that collect personally identifying physiological information, such as fingerprints and facial features, or record behavioral characteristics for identifying traits, like unique mannerisms and lifestyle patterns.
The danger here is the forfeiture of anonymity and diminished privacy of U.S. citizens at the hands of law enforcement and the industries that promote the spread of these technologies.
“Stingrays,” meanwhile, mimic cellphone towers, allowing police to extract identifying information from people’s cellphones.
“When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby,” the ACLU explains on its website.
Stingray is the brand name for an international mobile subscriber identity locator, a device which can monitor who someone is calling, when he or she made the call, and the location of the caller. And some can even capture conversations, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to defending civil liberties in the digital world
So what can you do?
To help answer this question, the EFF and Muckrock, a collaborative news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze and share government documents, launched a website last week. The website, “Street Level Surveillance,” acts as a kind of clearinghouse for local police spy technology.
“This is designed to help everybody from journalists to activists to lawyers who are working on these issues,” Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the EFF, told MintPress. “It is designed to benefit people in the community, whether those are people acting on their own behalves, people who serve as watchdogs, or defend the rights of everyday people.”
The website features information about surveillance tools used by local law enforcement agencies all over the U.S., how they’re used, the hidden dangers they pose, as well as news and other research on those devices.
The website also invites readers to actively participate in countering surveillance by filing a public records request to determine what kind of biometric technologies are being used in their own communities.
“How do you fight the surveillance state on the local level? One way is to gather intel on the intelligence gatherers,” the site advises. “This information is useful because it can help structure policy debates. Public records requests can also influence agencies. Government officials are more apt to act responsibly when they know they’re being watched.”
Grassroots efforts to end surveillance
Maass also urges the public to counter surveillance measures by local police by advocating against such measures to policymakers in local communities.
“Advocating with your policymakers, whether that’s your city council, your board of supervisors — I mean, these are important things, and the more information that’s out there, the more debate is fueled,” he said.
Nadia Kayyali, the digital rights activist and lawyer, told MintPress she hopes this kind of advocacy results in local governments slowing down their acquisition of surveillance technologies. She said, “They really need to stop, take a step back, and say, ‘Why are we adopting these? What problem are we trying to solve? Is this really the best way to do it?’”
She also wants the federal government to stop providing the funds that enable local law enforcement agencies to purchase these technologies without questioning whether those agencies will use them wisely.
Echoing Kayyali, Maass says this is the main problem. He explained:
“What we often see is police departments or local law enforcement agencies grabbing technologies without any policies in place for it, not asking anybody’s permission, just sort of getting it, [and] starting to implement it.”
Privacy issues are rarely brought up, he continued, and when they are, it’s not until after people realize what’s going on. But at that point, he says, it’s difficult to get lawmakers and city council members to take powers away from the police because they don’t want to be seen as being soft on crime.
“It’s really important to have this debate before the technology is purchased so informed decisions can be made about purchasing the technology,” he said.