A privacy impact assessment (PIA) released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week revealed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will begin accessing commercially available license plate images and vehicle locations as part of its rapidly expanding surveillance program.

According to the statement, “CBP plans to use an Automated Targeting System (ATS) to access commercially available automatic license plate reader (ALPR) information from a vendor service in order to provide CBP law enforcement personnel with a broader ability to search license plates of interest nationwide.”

The PIA does not identify the third-party vendor.

This represents a significant expansion of CBP’s use of ALPRs. Prior to the release of the privacy assessment statement, CBP only tracked information collected with its own ALPR technology. According to the PIA, the third-party databases that the CBP will have access to contain license plate information collected by “private businesses (e.g., parking garages), local governments (e.g., toll booth cameras), law enforcement agencies, and financial institutions via their contracted repossession companies.”

This will give CBP a powerful tool to track vehicles across the country without a warrant.

According to the PIA, CPB agents will be able to enter a license plate number, a vehicle make or model, or the location of the license plate reader and get back “any responsive records” from the database, “with a primary focus on reads occurring within the last 30 days.”

ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.

Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).

Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner was suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.

The proliferation of private vendors selling ALPR data to government agencies means even more information accessible to law enforcement. It is rapidly becoming possible to track your movements everywhere you go.

Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.

With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.

The DEA has been tracking license plates for years. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the agency tracks the location of millions of vehicles through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy. State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

The expansion of CBP license plate tracking provides another example of how various federal, state, and local government agencies, along with private entities, are creating an integrated surveillance state.

Last month, we reported that CBP flew an unarmed Predator drone over the streets of Minneapolis to surveil protesters in the wake George Floyd’s death.

This proves warnings about surveillance mission-creep should be heeded. If we allow the government to operate invasive surveillance technology without limits, there will literally be no limits to the level of spying the government will subject us to.

Mike Maharrey

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