Privacy Lost

Recently, the City of Binghamton decided to install license plate camera readers in every entryway into the city.  This records the plate number, the location, time, date and direction of travel.  Of course, when you cross-reference the plate number with the vehicle registration database, you can learn the vehicles owner, year, make and model, the owners address and date of birth.  If you cross-reference this with Ez-Pass data, you can learn the comings and goings of this same vehicle as it enters and exits certain toll roads.  If you cross-reference this with city installed cameras located all over Binghamton more crime-ridden areas, you have even more data.  And finally, when you cross-reference all of this with privately available, aggregated video feeds from private parking facilities, security cameras etc., well, you begin to see the bigger picture.

The following letter is a response to a conversation I had with a City of Binghamton councilman who thinks the plate readers are great, a truly wonderful crime fighting tool.  He ended our conversation by challenging me with this worn out, threadbare statement.  “If you’ve got nothing to hide, what are you worried about?”

This is what I had to say to that.

 

Just a follow-up to our conversation a few nights ago about cameras, license plate readers and privacy.

The following statement is a part of the decision in a privacy case in D.C. concerning plate readers:

“In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong.

A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

DC Circuit Court

US v Antoine Jones

Here is just one part of how NYC uses these devises on their police vehicles:

In NYC, unmarked police cars with plate readers have been used to target and encircle mosques in order to gain data of those attending religious services.

And what, if anything, has Binghamton done to insure limited access to this data?

Anyone with access to this system can target individual plate numbers and receive updates based on movements, for example your wife, girlfriend, boss, kids, etc.  How do we know that police personnel are not mis-using this data?  Also of note, the success rate of “hits” involving serious crimes is abysmally tiny.  Using Maryland as an example, only 47 criminal “hits” were obtained in 1 million plate reads.

And it’s not just Binghamton.  Consider the fact that this is going on virtually everywhere, creating a virtual digital dragnet of data on everybody everywhere, most or all of it for sale!  National Vehicle Location Services, a private company, aggregates plate data from multiple sources and has a database of more than 800 million records it sells to over 2,200 police agencies.

As a matter of practice, to insure no abuses, the following should be implemented by Binghamton leadership:

Retention should be short, like 90 days or less

No third-party sales in or out

No third party sharing

FOIL accessibility for transparency to the public

Public announcement of all plate readers public and private

 

An excerpt from an article by Cyrus Farivar:

But for his research on license plates readers and their effect on privacy and civil liberties, Farivar turned his attention to his own backyard: Oakland, California. He filed a records request for all the license plate reader records that had ever been collected and received 4.3 million records covering roughly four years.  “That was pretty shocking to me,” Farivar says.  He reviewed the records, identified clusters of data points on a map and — by simply matching a license plate to its owner — was able to piece together an astonishing amount of personal information. To make his point about the potential pitfalls of this type of data collection, Farivar evaluated the movements of Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb.  “Knowing nothing else about him, other than his license plate number that he gave me, I showed him on a map, and I said, ‘I bet that you live on this particular block in North Oakland because I can see that your car has been scanned something like 30 times on this one block. He said, ‘Yeah, that is exactly where I live.’ ”

CONOR FRIEDERSDORF

JAN 27, 2016

Article in the Atlantic

Vigilant Solutions, is taking photos of cars and trucks with its vast network of unobtrusive cameras. It retains location data on each of those pictures, and sells it.

It’s happening right now in nearly every major American city.

The company has taken roughly 2.2 billion license-plate photos to date. Each month, it captures and permanently stores about 80 million additional geotagged images. They may well have photographed your license plate. As a result, your whereabouts at given moments in the past are permanently stored. Vigilant Solutions profits by selling access to this data (and tries to safeguard it against hackers). Your diminished privacy is their product. And the police are their customers.

The company counts 3,000 law-enforcement agencies among its clients. Thirty thousand police officers have access to its database. Do your local cops participate?

More abuses seem inevitable as additional communities adopt the technology (some with an attitude expressed with admirable frankness by an official in a small Florida city: “We want to make it impossible for you to enter Riviera Beach without being detected.”)

“During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Georgia, population 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems,” the Wall Street Journal reports. As one critic, California State Senator Joe Simitian, asked: “Should a cop who thinks you’re cute have access to your daily movements for the past 10 years without your knowledge or consent? I think the answer to that question should be ‘no.’”

The technology forms part of a larger policing trend toward infringing on the privacy of ordinary citizens. ​“The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people’s everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception,” The Wall Street Journal explains. “Cell phone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored. Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen years ago, more than half of these surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use.”

Nor are police the only ones buying this data.

Vigilant Solutions is a subsidiary of a company called Digital Recognition Network.

Its website declares:  All roads lead to revenue with DRN’s license plate recognition technology. Fortune 1000 financial institutions rely on DRN solutions to drive decisions about loan origination, servicing, and collections. Insurance providers turn DRN’s solutions and data into insights to mitigate risk and investigate fraud. And, our vehicle location data transforms automotive recovery processes, substantially increasing portfolio returns.

And its general counsel insists that “everyone has a First Amendment right to take these photographs and disseminate this information.” But as the ACLU points out:

2011 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that individuals may become “more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation” due to license plate readers. It continues: “Recording driving habits could implicate First Amendment concerns. Specifically, LPR systems have the ability to record vehicles’ attendance at locations or events that, although lawful and public, may be considered private. For example, mobile LPR units could read and collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at addiction counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”

Many powerful interests are aligned in wanting to know where the cars of individuals are parked. Unable to legally install tracking devices themselves, they pay for the next best alternative—and it’s gradually becoming a functional equivalent. More laws might be passed to stymie this trend if more Americans knew that private corporations and police agencies conspire to keep records of their whereabouts.

Spread the word.

So Mr. Councilman, in closing, the answer to your question a few nights ago, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, what do you have to worry about?”  I would say there is plenty to worry about because the scope and size of this undertaking is a giant over-reach, grossly breaching the rights of millions more innocents than those guilty.  It is too intrusive in an otherwise free society and it fails the simple but tried and true “SNIFF TEST”.  It just plain stinks of BIG BROTHER and the repressive domination of an ever-growing, insatiable political state that wants to control everything.

 

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