November 28, 2011

 

Feds Tracking our every Movement with License Plates

By Mark Wachtler

November 28, 2011. Washington. (ONN) We know the Federal government has fields of computers and databases that do nothing but monitor, spy on and track every American citizen, including you and me. We know the government monitors our credit card purchases, bank deposits and withdraws.

New York City plate scanners

And if Macy’s and Walmart are monitoring our every movement via our cell phones, you can bet the Federal government is too. Last week, the Washington Post exposed another little known way the Feds are tracking us, our license plates.

Our nation’s capital has long been the setting for overreaching Federal government programs simply because the city is governed by the Feds and not one of the states. Absent a state constitution to keep them in check, Federal authorities and the Washington police often carry out secret programs with varying objectives. This time, the tactic being used to spy on the American people is no secret. It’s being done right out in the open, often with the full support of the public.

Throughout Washington DC and its surrounding suburbs, at least 250 cameras and growing are mounted to traffic signals and other street-level structures. These cameras snap one or more pictures of each and every car that passes under them. 1,800 cars per minute are captured and then downloaded to a government computer. With the sole objective of taking a readable picture of each auto and its license plate number, the images are then saved into a massive database that includes a record for every single American citizen whose ever registered a car.



Once the government’s computer captures and reads the license plate number, the corresponding American citizen is identified. Each image for each person and car is then logged into the database according to the location, date and time. Now, the Federal government has a real-time tracking device that works just as if they mounted a homing beacon to every car. Government agents can log into our records and instantly watch our every movement. They can look back and watch us move around the city on a previous day. Or they can watch in real time as the computer logs incoming pictures as our car passes through one Washington intersection after another.

While this technology has been in use for five years, the tactic of tracking every citizen’s real time movements has been going on for a decade. High-end retailers in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have been using the satellite tracking device in our cell phones to monitor our movements for years. Cell phone carriers sell your information to corporations who hire advertising agencies to put together marketing campaigns using your current location at any given time. When the corporations see that you are about to walk past The Gap, their computers instantly send you a coupon from not just The Gap, but that specific Gap store. The Gap is just an example. Each day, more and more retailers are taking advantage of the technology to increase sales and target their marketing with extreme precision.

And if you think US cell phone companies aren't passing your information to Federal authorities en masse, including your financial transactions and content of your text messages, read the Whiteout Press article, 'Cell Carriers Spying Procedures Released'. As many consumers are outraged to learn that Macy’s or Nordstrom are following their movements using the GPS chip in our cell phones, even more are horrified to learn that Uncle Sam is doing the same, only with its vast network of street-level cameras.

Washington DC has the largest network of cameras hooked into the Federal database with more than one plate reader per square mile. That gives the Feds a detailed grid system they can use to track individuals as they travel from one grid to the next. The next step is obviously to bring more cities into the camera network.

The government has already successfully blanketed the nation’s capital with cameras. Now, in their own words, they’re going to saturate all approaches and all surrounding areas with the camera network. From there, the program is expected to spread throughout the nation like a checkerboard. Every square mile of American land will have a camera snapping pictures and logging the movements of every single car in the nation. But that’s ‘some day’. And many civil libertarians warn that the above scenario isn’t as far off as it may seem.



A number of cities and states in the US already use street-level cameras to snap pictures of every car that goes by. Some are set to only take pictures when a traffic signal turns red or the target is traveling over a certain speed, thus allowing the municipality to issue a traffic violation. Others sit over interstate tollways, clicking pictures of each license plate and then matching the plate number with a US citizen in their database. Once matched, the toll payment is then automatically charged to the motorist’s credit card or deducted from their back account. One imagines it wouldn’t be too difficult to link these existing local monitoring systems into the Federal program.

The Washington Post article goes on to quote Captain Kevin Reardon of the Arlington County police. “It never stops” he concedes, “It just gobbles up tag information. One of the big questions is, what do we do with the information?” Reardon is the officer in charge of Arlington County’s plate reading system. The current disagreement between various law enforcement officials is, how long should the pictures and data be retained?

Some critics are skeptical and assume the Federal government is secretly keeping the information indefinitely. Local agencies however, are more inclined to use the tool to track down fleeing criminals or find stolen cars. While local DC police keep the data for three years, the nearby city of Alexandria holds it for two years. Maryland stores it for one year. And some surrounding suburbs only retain the images and information for as little as a month.

The Critics

The program isn’t without its critics, none more outspoken than the ACLU. The article quotes ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley commenting, “That’s quite a large database of innocent people’s comings and goings. The government has no business collecting that kind of information on people without a warrant.”

The Supporters

Federal authorities and law enforcement officials only need to point to the parents of kidnapped children or the victims of domestic terror attacks to justify the 24 hour monitoring system. Fairfax County Lt. TJ Rogers explained, “It’s a perfect example of how they’d be useful. We see a lot of potential in it.”

The Goofy Citizens

There’s also the potential for a lot of embarrassment. The article details one recent incident where a Virginia man reported his wife missing. After entering her license plate into the database, authorities were given an intersection where the car was last photographed and logged into the system. From there, it only took a quick visual search to find the car in a motel parking lot. When they found the missing wife, she was in one of the motel rooms, not hurt and not kidnapped. Authorities didn’t say if she was alone or what she was doing in the motel room without her husband’s knowledge. But that reinforces the ACLU’s point – the government has no business exposing embarrassing incidents in our everyday private lives.

The camera monitoring system is already in widespread use. Police officials confirm they use the technology as much as any other these days, including standard surveillance cameras and portable fingerprint scanners. The cameras cost $20,000 each and are capable of capturing license plate numbers on cars across as many as four lanes of traffic and going as fast as 150 mph. The technology was actually invented for use in scanning mail at the US Postal Service. While one portion of the camera takes a color photo of the target, an optical infrared sensor also scans it to decipher numbers and letters.

While the cameras and the monitoring systems are currently in use in numerous locations around the country, it’s in Washington DC where police are expanding the system’s uses and capabilities. Instead of only relying on stationary cameras to catch cars as they pass through a certain intersection, Washington police have begun mounting the cameras onto their police vehicles and doing mobile scans of entire areas of the city, logging the locations of parked cars.

Officials are also expanding how they analyze and use the data collected. For instance, if a target individual is found to have spent days traveling the city with no particular pattern or agenda, police can match the driver’s past movements with other records in their database. Cross-checking records could reveal that the motorist did have a specific agenda – the driver just happened to be following someone else’s car each time, a Congressman, Middle East diplomat or even the President perhaps. Or maybe a convoy of the same automobiles travels the same route each Tuesday. Federal authorities believe those are red flags and possibly useful information.


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The debate is raging with law enforcement officials in Washington insisting the program has benefits. They claim that at least one arrest per day is made just from the information provided by the monitoring cameras. Critics argue that there are no limits on how authorities can use the system. The only local Washington DC laws on the books covering the program say that pictures must be deleted within 10 days unless there is a benefit to law enforcement keeping them on file. The other stipulation is that the program can only be used for law enforcement purposes. Critics argue that almost any use of the cameras can be called “beneficial” to law enforcement and that there are no laws of any kind in Washington that outline how and when the system is to be use.

Similar police tactics are currently being challenged in the US Supreme Court. The issue in question is almost the exact same – using GPS tracking data to monitor and follow Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. Legal experts expect the Court to uphold portions of the surveillance program, while striking down others. But that’s only if the Supreme Court hears the case. Currently, the law stipulates that any data gathered from monitoring American’s movements throughout public places is legal. It’s the secret expanded uses of the cameras and database that may violate Constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Regardless of future legal challenges, the program is catching fire and spreading to cities and states across the country at a blinding speed. Currently, 37 percent of local police departments use plate reading scanners for one use or another.  Companies that manufacture and sell the equipment insist that a large number of additional municipalities will have the plate scanners by the end of the year. At the rate the government is expanding the program, it won’t be long before every square mile of the American landscape is under surveillance.

Speaking to the whole of the American people, Virginia State Police Sergeant Robert Alessi who runs the state’s program, explained the difference the camera system makes and why average citizens have no reason to worry. “Now, we’re not getting everything. We’re fishing,” Alessi told the Post, “Fixed cameras will help us use a net instead of one fishing pole with one line in the water waiting to get a nibble.” He went on to discount any privacy or abuse fears, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not driving a stolen car, you’re not committing a crime, then you don’t have anything to worry about.”

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