Free Future

License Plate Readers: Just Don’t Keep Data on Innocent People!

License Plate Readers: Just Don’t Keep Data on Innocent People!

By Katie Haas, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at 11:42am
Our recent report on license plate scanners, You Are Being Tracked, reveals a lot about the privacy problems caused by the proliferation of this technology. But the report also shows that there are simple solutions that would go a long way toward transforming license plate readers from a dangerous invasion of our privacy into a legitimate law enforcement tool. First and foremost is setting limitations on how long law enforcement agencies can keep license plate reader data.
The NSA, the Constitution, and Collection vs. Use of Information

The NSA, the Constitution, and Collection vs. Use of Information

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:44am

My colleague Alex Abdo has published a nice op-ed in the Guardian this morning on the NSA's dragnet data collection programs, and the Amash Amendment that is currently being considered by the house to curb it. Alex reaches to the heart of the NSA's argument:

The NSA argues that its collection of every American's phone records is constitutional because the agency stores the records in a lockbox and looks at the records only if and when it has a reason to search them. In other words, it claims that the constitution is not concerned with the acquisition of our sensitive data, only with the later searching of it.

This is an extremely dangerous argument. For two centuries, American courts have taken the view that the constitution is concerned with the government's initial intrusion upon privacy, and not only with the later uses to which the government puts the information it has collected. That's why it is unconstitutional for the government, without a warrant, to seize your journal even if it never reads it; to record your phone call even if it never listens to it; or to videotape your bedroom activities even if it never presses play.

Alex also points out that if accepted, there is no limit to the data collection this argument could justify. (See also this post on that point.)

The Chilling Effects of License-Plate Location Tracking

The Chilling Effects of License-Plate Location Tracking

By Mica Moore, ACLU & Bennett Stein, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 12:12pm

Location tracking has far-reaching implications for the way we live, even if we don't think we've done anything wrong. Our recent report, "You Are Being Tracked," shows that automatic license plate readers allow law enforcement to track every car on…

Use of Automated License Plate Readers Expanding in Northern California, and Data is Shared With Feds

Use of Automated License Plate Readers Expanding in Northern California, and Data is Shared With Feds

By Matthew Cagle, Volunteer Attorney, ACLU of Northern California at 10:51am

The feeling of freedom that comes from driving down California’s sunny open roads is at risk—and rising gas prices are not to blame. Our investigations show that at least twenty Northern California law enforcement entities as well as the California…

"Limited Only by the Imagination": The Need for Legal Limits on License Plate Reader Use

"Limited Only by the Imagination": The Need for Legal Limits on License Plate Reader Use

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 10:13am

If you've been following our work on license plate readers, by now you know that if you're driving, your license plate is likely being photographed...

State secrecy and opaque funding programs cloud public's understanding of federal grants for surveillance gear

State secrecy and opaque funding programs cloud public's understanding of federal grants for surveillance gear

By Kade Crockford, Director, ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project at 2:54pm

In the summer of 2012, the national ACLU and 38 affiliates submitted public records requests to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to learn about how they are engaging with license plate readers—powerful cameras that, used without…

ACLU Challenges 67 Days of Warrantless Cell Phone Location Tracking

ACLU Challenges 67 Days of Warrantless Cell Phone Location Tracking

By Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:55am

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals may soon decide whether police need a warrant to track the location of your cell phone over the course of days or weeks. The case, United States v. Davis, involves a warrantless police request for four people's…

Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass Tracking

Police Documents on License Plate Scanners Reveal Mass Tracking

By Catherine Crump, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 10:01am

Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of. Mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers,…

What if the Government Hid Bugs and Video Cameras in Every American Home?

What if the Government Hid Bugs and Video Cameras in Every American Home?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:11am

Top government officials have been defending the NSA’s secret collection of phone records of every American. But the argument they are using today to justify mass surveillance of phone calls could be used to justify ANY amount of intrusion into Americans’ private lives. Imagine, for example, what would happen if it were discovered that the NSA had placed a secret microphone and video camera in the living room and bedroom of every home in America. It’s easy to predict how the government would defend that kind of spying. Here is what they would probably say:

  • The audio and video data collected from Americans’ homes do not constitute “surveillance” because nobody watches or listens to the recordings, unless they obtain a warrant. Actually, not a real warrant, or even a subpoena, but permission through an internal NSA process based on—trust us!—very, very strict criteria. Or in a small number of other very exceptional circumstances.
  • The program has been approved by the chairs of the major congressional intelligence committees, as well as the secret FISA Court.
  • While it’s true that even the sweepingly broad Patriot Act requires that data be “relevant” to an investigation, there has never been a requirement that every piece of data in a dataset that is turned over be relevant, only that the data set be generally relevant . When it comes to the mass of data that we are collecting from people’s homes, we know there is relevant information in there, and if we don’t preserve that data, we won’t be able to find it when we need it.
  • At least 50 acts of terrorism-like crimes have been prevented. We can’t release details of these successes, but they include several people caught building bomb-like objects in their kitchens, two instances in which women who were kidnapped years ago were found being kept prisoner within private homes, and numerous instances of domestic violence.

All of the arguments above are essentially what the NSA’s current defenders have been saying. My point is that there are few limits to the spying that their arguments could be used to justify.

The idea of the NSA secretly visiting every home in America to hide audio and video bugs inside may seem far-fetched, but what they have actually done is not quite as different as it might seem. It was not long ago that in order for the government to collect telephone metadata (all telephone numbers called and received), the authorities had to attach telephone bugs known as “pen register” and “trap and trace” devices to a home’s physical telephone line. Today it no longer needs to do that, but its mass collection of telephone metadata accomplishes the same end through virtual means, and just because the technology makes it possible to carry out such spying through the reshuffling of digital files at telephone central offices, doesn’t mean it’s any less intrusive than if the NSA were to physically attach a bug on the telephone wires outside every home.

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:51pm

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a very valuable set of documents it obtained via FOIA from Customs & Border Protection (CBP) on that agency’s use of drones. EFF found that CPB has greatly increased the number of missions that it has flown—inside the border region—on behalf of other state, local and federal agencies. The EFF’s Jennifer Lynch summarizes what they found nicely in this blog post.

All the public discussion around the CBP’s use of drones has centered around their use on the border. As far as I know, CBP’s drone program was intended and authorized by Congress for the purpose of patrolling the nation’s borders. It was not intended to be a general law enforcement drone “lending library,” in which Predator drones (which are quite unlike the small UAVs that police departments around the country are beginning to acquire and deploy) are used for all manner of purposes across the country. Many of those purposes are totally unobjectionable, but if such a system is to be created, it should be only following a full, open, and democratic discussion, and (as Lynch points out) with a strong set of privacy policies. It should certainly not be created in secret by a single federal agency.