Tag Archives: big brother

New Documents Reveal Growing Database of License Plate Reader Cameras

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has received new documents via Freedom of Information Act requests that show the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to local and state law enforcement agencies for the purchase of automatic license plate reader (ALPRs) systems.

ALPRs are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.

The ACLU writes:

“The NHTSA is funding license plate readers for highway safety purposes only, but it’s far from clear how law enforcement agencies are interpreting this and whether they are using the funding to buy license plate readers for non-safety uses. 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.”

The documents show that various state agencies received NHTSA funds for the purchase of ALPRs in order to document highway safety. While much of the grants are intended to be used to study highway safety, traffic congestion or similar benign activities the cameras have been shown to record other perfectly legal behavior. The ACLU has previously released documents that show the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was indeed using ALPRs to photograph vehicle occupants.

[quote_box_center]”We still do not know how police departments proposed to use license plate readers to improve ‘Safety Belt Performance’; does this mean the government would use the cameras to take pictures of people inside cars to see if they’re wearing seatbelts?” – American Civil Liberties Union[/quote_box_center]

Grants for the ALPRs have gone to law enforcement agencies in Vermont, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Indiana requested funds, but it is unclear if NHTSA granted the funds. New York Division of Criminal Justice Services requested funding to purchase 70 license plate readers in 2008. It is also unclear if these funds were granted.

In May it was revealed that the FBI invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license-plate reader technology despite conflicts regarding privacy concerns, according to newly released documents from the bureau.

The documents were also released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU. Although heavily redacted, the emails show internal discussion on surveillance concerns related to the network of cameras that are used to capture and store license plate information.

In January TruthInMedia reported that the ACLU revealed the existence of a national program operated by the DEA  that collects and analyzes license plate information.

According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, the DEA has gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program. The initiative allows the DEA to connect its ALPRs and collected data with that of law enforcement agencies around the nation.

One document shows the DEA has at least 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. Law enforcement in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey are among the agencies providing the DEA with data. The program opened to local and state partners in 2009.

The Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is one of the federal agencies working with the DEA. The documents also reveal the program mining license plate reader data “to identify travel patterns.”  The DEA has established 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. A 2010 document also explains that the DEA had by then set up 41 plate reader monitoring stations throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California.

For more information check out the ACLU’s report “You Are Being Tracked: License Plate Readers Explained”

Privacy Advocates Express Fears About Next Generation Light Bulbs

The American Civil Liberties Union is warning about the potential dangers of “Smart-City” projects that include the use of LED light bulbs and technology that could be used to monitor innocent civilians.

The New York Times reports that a number of companies are investing in Smart-Grid LEDs as major cities prepare to convert their public lighting systems:

“Using a combination of LEDs and big data technology, public lighting is the potential backbone of a system that could use billions of fixtures to collect data about traffic congestion at an intersection or a consumer walking down the cereal aisle, to name just a couple of applications.

Sensity Systems, a small start-up that builds and manages smart-lighting networks, is announcing on Monday that it has attracted money and partnerships from a group of major businesses, including Simon Property Group, the leading mall developer; General Electric; Cisco; and Acuity Brands, a leading maker of LED lighting.”

The Times goes on to say that Sensity has already installed its systems in Newark; Bangalore, India; Adelaide, Australia; and Albertslund, a Copenhagen suburb. The lights can be outfitted with sensors that can detect a range of activities, including motion, traffic congestion, pollutants, gunshots or, locate a particular shopper at a store.

Despite the perceived benefits of LED bulbs, the technology can be turned into a tool for surveillance. The ACLU stated that they strongly oppose “the creation of infrastructures for ubiquitous mass surveillance including the widespread deployment of lightbulb spying technology.Given the limited use of the product as a lighting device and the broad scope of its tracking and surveillance features, what this product really appears to be is a mass surveillance device being disguised as an LED light bulb.”

The spread of surveillance light bulbs is not a new phenomenon, however. Earlier this year TruthInMedia reported that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an expansion to a pilot program that uses “gun shot detector” microphones as part of an ongoing effort to more efficiently respond to crime.

Mayor De Blasio announced the expansion at a press conference at New York Police Department headquarters. The program will cost $1.5 million to install 300 listening devices around the precincts with the highest rates of gun violence. The devices are already live in the Bronx and should be operational in Brooklyn soon.  The microphones are attached to lamp posts and utility poles and connected through a wireless network called ShotSpotter. New York City is the latest to join more than sixty cities with the technology, including Oakland; San Francisco; Washington, DC; and Milwaukee police.

 The ShotSpotter program records noises believed to be gun shots and then relays the date, time, location, and a recording to police officers. ShotSpotter sensors are connected to thousands of cameras as part of New York City’s Domain Awareness System.

Critics believe the devices will surreptitiously record innocent individuals conversations. It has already been shown that the devices can record conversations of those walking in range of the microphones. In 2014 CBS San Francisco reported that the Oakland Police Department was able to record a dying man’s last words using the ShotSpotter system. Oakland Privacy Working Group lawyer Brian Hofer told CBS that the OPD originally denied the ShotSpotter’s ability to record voices. A similar situation took place in New Bedford, Mass., and proved that the devices do invade privacy.

What are your thoughts? Do the benefits outweigh the dangers? Can we trust the government to use these tools for benevolent purposes?

FBI Claims They Are Not Responsible for Secrecy on ‘StingRay’ Surveillance

For the last decade local police across the nation have been purchasing and training in the use of cell site simulators, alternatively known as Stingrays. TruthInMedia has written extensively on how the devices are being used to track suspected criminals while largely operating without oversight from local, state, or federal authorities. Exactly how the devices operate and what data they collect and/or save has been unknown because a vast amount of secrecy surrounding the tools.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:



Police officers can use the devices to track your cellphones signal.  Once the signal is located the stingray can provide a general location on the map and police officers can drive around (or in one case, walk door to door) until they get a signal from your phone. This has civil liberties advocates up in arms over the potential for misuse of the tools.

Both the Harris Corporation that manufactures the StingRay and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) require police to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) related to the use of the devices. Through these NDAs local police departments have become subordinate to Harris and even in court cases in front of a judge, are not allowed to speak on the details of their arrangements. 

However, a spokesman with the FBI recently said the agreements are not supposed to prevent police from disclosing that have used StingRays. FBI spokesman Christopher Allen told The Washington Post that only as “a last resort” would the bureau require state and local police to drop pending cases rather than reveal new information on the use of the devices.

“The FBI’s concern is with protecting the law enforcement sensitive details regarding the tradecraft and capabilities of the device,” FBI spokesmsan Christopher Allen said in the statement.

Even if Allen’s statements are taken at face value there is still the issue of law enforcement interpreting the agreements to mean that they should not reveal any details.

“The reality is the FBI has made officers sign a non-disclosure agreement that says they may not disclose any information about the technology in a trial,” John Sawicki, a lawyer in Tallahassee, Fla. told the Post.

Nathan Wessler, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the information was insignificant, “coming only after significant details of this technology have been outed by the press.”

The comments from the FBI come after the Justice Department announced it would be reviewing its policies for use of cell-site simulators.

Should the FBI be trusted?

Should we trust the FBI’s statements that this level of secrecy will only be used in an emergency? If the statement is incorrect it would be consistent with past lies told by Harris corp and other agencies involved in the use of the tools.

In September 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the maker of the Stingray for allegedly misrepresenting information regarding data collection capabilities. According to documents obtained during a Freedom of Information Request by the ACLU of Northern California, Florida-based Harris Corporation misled the FCC about the frequency of use for the Stingray.

In an email from June 24, 2010, an employee with Harris told the FCC that the devices (Stingfish in this case) “purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations.”

However, the ACLU reports, “records released by the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department explain that in nearly 200 cases since 2007 where the department used a StingRay, only 29 percent involved emergencies; most of the rest involved criminal investigations in which there was ample time to seek some sort of authorization from a judge.”

A recent document dump in New York state provided some details on the law enforcement’s use of Stingrays but was a reminder of how difficult it has been to obtain details on surveillance tools. It was revealed that state police had spent around $640,000 on stingray equipment and training. Beyond the cost of the devices little else is known, because NY State Police claim there are no records on the use of Stingrays. This includes policies, guidelines, records related to use in investigations, or copies of court orders.

This absence of records might make sense if the State Police bought the device but never used it,” the New York Civil Liberties Union writes. “But this seems unlikely given the recent investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment upgrades and training.

For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.

Department of Justice to Reveal New Details Of ‘StingRay’ Cellphone Surveillance

The Department of Justice plans to begin revealing details on the use of Stingray cellphone tracking tools, according a new report from the Wall Street Journal.

Officials with the Justice Department told the WSJ that they have launched a review into how law-enforcement agencies use the controversial technology.

StingRays are the name of a brand of cell-site simulators, a tool which allows law enforcement to trick a phone into sending its cell signal (and associated data) to the device rather than a cell tower. This gives authorities the ability to gather location, numbers dialed, length of calls, and in newer models, the actual contents of conversations and texts.

Devlin Barrett, the WSJ reporter behind the story, tweeted that the internal review began before Attorney General Eric Holder left office. A DOJ spokesman stated that the department is, “examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department’s continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties.”

The announcement from the DOJ comes as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released thousands of pages of heavily-redacted documents related to Stingrays. The document dump came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from MuckRock’s Alex Richardson. One of the redacted documents is titled “Cellphone Tracking for Dummies.”

Although the content of the documents is censored, the recipients of the communications indicate that the FBI has been passing on information on Stingrays to state and local departments around the country.

Details of how exactly the devices work remains shrouded in secrecy, but that trend seems to be changing as the public questions the use of these tools. In late March, a heavily redacted edition of a 2010 manual for the StingRay was released.

The manual was released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by The Blot Magazine. This marked the first public release of the user manual which covers the Harris Corporation’s StingRay, StingRay II, and Kingfish devices.

The manual provides a view into how the technology operates and highlights the level of secrecy Harris Corp, the manufacturer of the Stingray, and government agencies are employing. Past documents have shown that most police departments have been granting themselves authorization without first getting a warrant based on probable cause. When the departments do pursue a warrant through a judge, they often do not specifically mention the Stingray specifically but rather use vague and generic terms.

The promises of the DOJ and the document release from the FBI could hint at a more transparent policy towards the technology. However, not everyone is impressed. The American Civil Liberties Union writes:

“Federal law enforcement’s move toward using warrants for this invasive technology is welcome and long overdue, as is the promise of increased transparency. But major questions remain.

First, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is slow-walking the move toward decreased secrecy around Stingrays because it doesn’t “want to reveal information that would give new ammunition to defense lawyers in prosecutions where warrants weren’t used.” If that is so, the promise of greater transparency is a sham. Law enforcement agencies have been violating the rights of defendants and non-suspects for years by failing to get warrants and then hiding the fact and details of Stingray use from defense attorneys and courts. Trying to insulate these violations from challenge by maintaining secrecy until pending cases have concluded will perpetuate the government’s outrageous conduct.”

While the federal government promises more accountability, several states are seeking to pass legislation that would require a clear process for the use of Stingrays and similar devices. On April 23, New York State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer became the latest representative to introduce a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a judicial order before deploying a “mobile phone surveillance device or system.”

For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.

8 Crazy Ways The Government Watches Us

Since whistleblower Edward Snowden released unsettling documents regarding NSA spying, Americans have become concerned about privacy… And they should be. The federal government has increasingly taken steps to invade our privacy in the past few decades — they listen to us, watch us, and photograph us on a daily basis.

Here are just a few of the ways that Big Brother is watching:


1. Taking Photos Of Your License Plate 

Many towns have installed cameras on the road to crack down on traffic violations. When a photo is taken of a license plate, the photo and ticket are sent to the car owner’s home address.


2. Recording You In Public Places

Dozens of cities have installed surveillance cameras in their public areas to catch and prevent crime. But innocent, law-abiding citizens also get recorded. Most of these people have no idea they are being watched.


3. Tracking Your Location Using Cell Phone Data

Smart phones allow us to do lots of neat things, but they are also Big Brother’s dream come true. The GPS built into your phone allows officials to know your location at all times.


4. Reading Your Emails And Text Messages Sent Abroad 

In order to seek out suspicious foreigners, Obama’s NSA reads some “private” emails and texts sent abroad. According to the New York Times, the NSA is “copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border.”


5. Snooping On Your Phone Records

Earlier this summer, it surfaced that the NSA had collected Verizon phone records from millions of unknowing Americans. The Guardian reported that the government agency was doing this “indiscriminately and in bulk — regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”


6. Watching You From The Sky

FBI director Robert Mueller admitted that the government spies on Americans with drones “in a very, very minimal way, very seldom.” Why is this happening at all?! Mueller said he has no idea what happens with the images collected by the drones. Drone spying can show officials exactly where you are, and when.

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7. Spying On You… Through Your Fridge

No, this is not a joke. More and more household appliances are connected to the internet, which is convenient for us. But it’s also useful for government officials, who want to watch “suspicious” Americans. CIA director David Petraeus said, “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters.”


8. Listen To You Through Streetlights

Special streetlights on countless American streets allow government officials to monitor citizens. The Daily Mail reported each federally-funded streetlight “contains a speaker system to broadcast emergency alerts, and a video display and is also equipped with proximity sensors capable of recording both pedestrian and road traffic.”