Tag Archives: License Plate Readers

FBI Invested in License-Plate Reader Tech Despite Privacy Concerns

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license-plate reader technology despite conflict regarding privacy concerns, according to newly released documents from the bureau.

The documents were released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (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.

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) collect data for law enforcement agencies around the nation. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers this program only adds to the growing list of data collection by the US government.

ALPR’s 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.

An internal email from June 2012 says that the FBI’s Office of General Counsel was “still wrestling with” license-plate related reader privacy issues. The concern caused an assistant director of the agency to cancel a purchase order based on the advice of lawyers. The heavily redacted email does not reveal what the specific concerns were. However, the emails did make it clear that the program was moving forward. “Once these issues have been resolved … hopefully this summer … we expect to be back. The program is still growing and we enjoy tremendous field support.”

FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the AP that the license-plate readers were being used but “they may only be deployed in support of an investigation and only if there’s a reasonable belief that they will aid that investigation.”

Emails from December 2007 show the FBI’s Video Surveillance Unit testing the system, calling it “very impressive.” The FBI purchased license plate technology from a Greensboro, North Carolina, manufacturer called ELSAG North America. Purchase orders reveal that the technology has been purchased and “deployed to numerous field offices” since at least 2010.

The ACLU applauded the apparent internal discussion but says there are still many unanswered questions. On their blog they write:

“We have no information about the types of investigations carried out with this technology. Have FBI field offices deployed license plate readers to gather intelligence on Arab and Muslim communities? To watch over Occupy or Black Lives Matter protesters? The extremely limited information released to the public does not answer these or many other possible questions.

Automatic license plate readers are a sophisticated way of tracking drivers’ locations, and when their data is aggregated over time they can paint detailed pictures of people’s lives. 

The public has a right to know what information about non-suspects is collected, how long it is retained, whether it is shared with other agencies or departments and for what reasons, and what oversight mechanisms are in place.”

The ACLU has previously revealed surveillance efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) involving license plate readers.

The DEA and the ATF were planning to monitor gun show attendees using license plate readers, according an email released through the Freedom of Information Act. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the 2009 email which details the DEA’s Phoenix office working on a plan to “attack” guns going to an undisclosed location and gun shows. This plan included the use of LPRs. Most of the email was redacted and did not list what organization was being targeted. As the ACLU notes, “Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.” The DEA responded to the emails, stating that the proposal was never implemented.

In late January, TruthInMedia reported on the existence of a federal database being run by the DEA. 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.

For more background on how license plate readers work, and the related dangers please check out this article.


EFF and ACLU Lawsuit Against LAPD, License Plate Readers Begins

This article was submitted by guest contributor Derrick Broze.

Last Friday the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California filed the opening brief  in their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The lawsuit deals with how the law enforcement agencies are using Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) to gather information. The two watchdog agencies argue that the two departments are illegally keeping quiet on how the information is used.

The EFF and the ACLU fear that the ALPR mounted on traffic light poles and patrol vehicles are gathering information such as license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. Concerns for privacy and freedom of speech prompted the lawsuit. The scanners are seen as an expansion of an already growing arsenal of federally funded surveillance tools, including drone aircraft, surveillance camera, and “gunshot detector” audio recording devices. 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 LAPD and LASD have been called “two of the biggest gatherers of automatic license plate recognition information,” by LA Weekly. The ALPR gather information and officers from the LASD or LAPD can access up to 26 other police agenices in the county as they search for a hit in the system. The two departments are the target of the EFF, ACLU lawsuit but they are not alone in their use of the technology.
A 2011 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum ( http://policeforum.org/library/critical-issues-in-policing-series/Technology_web2.pdf) found that of the more than 70 police departments surveyed, 70 percent used ALPR technology and 85 percent expected to be using or increasing use of the technology within the next five years. Some believe that by 2016 as much as 25 percent of police vehicles will come equipped with the cameras.

It is not only the danger of creating a map of a persons wherabouts and habits, but also the fear of targeting individuals for various political or religious associations that has critics worried. There are also no standards on how long the information should be held, or who can hold it. Another issue deals with the so called “hot lists”.

The Danger of “Hot Lists”

Departments and officers can create lists of “vehicles of interest” and alert other ALPR users when the vehicle is spotted. Officers can search individuals plates numbers in the ALPR system to track during their shift. There seems to be no prerequisite of reasonable suspicion or a warrant needed to be added to such a list. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department manual on the ALPR offers more insight into the program.

As with many emerging technologies the future is still being written and opportunities for corruption and abuse are plenty. In 2009 the BBC reported on the case of John Cat. Catt is a regular attendee of anti-war protests in his home town, Brighton. His vehicle was tagged by police at one of the events and he was added to a “hotlist”. He said later while on a trip to London he was pulled over by anti-terror police. He was threatened with arrest if he did not cooperate and answer the questions of the police.

A recent investigation by Mudrock and the Boston Globe revealed that the Boston Police Department violated its own policies by failing to follow up on leads that were flagged by the ALPR scans. Public records requests by MudRock found that the BPD also collected information on its own officers. The BPD has reportedly stopped responding to email and phone calls seeking documents that they are required to disclose.
Push Back Against License Plate Readers

It seems that as awareness of the technology grows so does the opposition. In the age of Edward Snowden and the NSA many are wary of allowing more cameras to peer into their lives.

Recently the Santa Cruz City Council approved a $37,000 grant for the purchase of ALPRs for the Santa Cruz Police Department. There was a small, but vocal opposition at the council meeting. In Oregon Representative Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, recently testified in support of a state bill that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from keeping images and location data for more than 14 days unless being used in a criminal investigation. ACLU Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque asked the Senate Interim Committee On General Government, Consumer and Small Business Protection to create guidelines for the use of the technology that balance security with privacy.

In California Senator Jerry Hill has introduced a bill that would limit data retention and ban the sale of data gathered by ALPR technology. Hill’s Senate Bill 893 would prohibit the selling of information to any entity that is not a law enforcement agency or officer.

Preparing for the Technology to Expand

Without a doubt the ALPRs are going to adopted by more police departments in the same manner we are seeing the drone technology take off. What remains to be seen is how citizens respond to yet another encroachment on privacy and civil liberties. There will likely be a chilling factor for some if the technology expands into complete monitoring of daily driving and living habits. A 2009 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stated, “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.”

Last summer the ACLU released a 34-page report called “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.” (http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2013/07/YouAreBeingTracked.pdf) covering the many angle of the emerging technologies uses and possible abuses. Since that report we have learned much about the breadth and scope of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying apparatus. In December we learned that local police are using tools such as “tower dumps”, and “The Stingray” to collect information. The Automatic License Plate Readers are just one more tool for local law enforcement agencies, funded by the federal government, to erode privacy and establish a network of panopticons.

The result of the ACLU and the EFF’s efforts could lead to more transparency and a view into how the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriffs Department use the ALPRs. There is still a great deal of time for opponents of invasive surveillance and supporters of privacy to fight on a local level. By staying informed and proactive we can help create solutions that will bring us closer to freedom and allow new technologies to flourish.


Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly
podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on TheConsciousResistance.com, The Liberty
Beat, the Anti-Media, Activist Post, and other independent media sources.