Is Big Brother Freeway Marketing?

Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during daily activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. (WSJ link)

Add driving to the list.

Drug dogs and inquiring border agents at Mexican and Canadian borders aren’t the only tools used to take a glimpse into your confidentiality, as cameras now capture license plate numbers to record your vehicles exact location. Not that surprising, right?

Did you know the government shares the automobile surveillance data captured on camera with insurance companies?

License plate reading cameras have been coming under fire when they were dispersed across the country more than a year ago, each capture images of millions to tens of millions of plates a year.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requested and released by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) record how widespread automatic license plate readers have become. Not only are license readers placed at borders, they are distributed throughout dozens of U.S. cities mounted on utility poles, bridges and police patrol cars.

The FOIA’s records include memos outlining the sharing of license plate data among the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and most significantly, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an Illinois non-profit composed of hundreds of insurance firms including branches of Allstate, GEICO, Liberty, Nationwide, Progressive and State Farm.

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union warned the camera technology is quickly becoming “a warrantless tracking tool, enabling retroactive surveillance of millions of people,” and announced its sending requests for information to 38 police departments as well as the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Transportation inquiring about the use of the technology.

“This is warrantless collection of very private data, location data about where you’ve been and when,” says Ginger McCall, an attorney with EPIC. “It’s being shared with unknown organizations, not just in the government where there may be Privacy Act protections, but outside the government with third parties, possibly in contravention of the Privacy Act.”

According to a 2005 “memorandum of understanding” included in EPIC’s document release, license-plate reader “information on vehicles departing from and arriving into the United States will be provided to the [National Insurance Crime Bureau or] NICB for the purpose of deterring the export of stolen vehicles, identifying vehicle theft patterns and trends…and returning vehicles to the rightful parties of interest.” The data can also be used, according to the document, to identify so-called “owner-give-up” insurance fraud, in which a vehicle’s owner fakes its theft by giving it to a friend and claiming it as stolen.

The document also explains automatic licenses plate readers store license plate data for two years, “unless the data is moved to and maintained in a system that is governed by an alternate destruction schedule.”
Several questions are raised.

Is preventing theft and fraud worth sacrificing privacy? Who are the third parties sharing the information with? In the information age it seems nothing is private and sharing of information is endless. So what‘s off limits?

A CBP official has responded with a statement that the agency does share information with the NICB “in a law enforcement capacity involving investigations of active cases of vehicle fraud and theft. CBP does not maintain a database of vehicle locations. Data from license plate readers is considered law enforcement sensitive and can only be shared with law enforcement personnel and special investigative units of the NICB on an official need-to-know basis.”

The New York Police Department was found to be using the license plate readers as part of an effort to surveillance Muslim communities in Newark, New Jersey, without evidence that the targets had engaged in any prior criminal activity earlier this year, according to the Associated Press.

Something else to consider is the Supreme Court’s January ruling in the U.S. v. Jones case, which stated that police cannot place GPS-enabled trackers on a car without a warrant due to the Fourth Amendment violation which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. It will be interesting to see if the Fourth Amendment will apply in cases involving other electronic surveillance techniques such as smart phones, mobile apps, navigation systems and license plate cameras.

Freeway marketing is here and I’m not talking billboards.


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