The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has received new documents via Freedom of Information Act requests that show the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to local and state law enforcement agencies for the purchase of automatic license plate reader (ALPRs) systems.
ALPRs are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.
“The NHTSA is funding license plate readers for highway safety purposes only, but it’s far from clear how law enforcement agencies are interpreting this and whether they are using the funding to buy license plate readers for non-safety uses. The NHTSA should not be funding police technology for surveillance purposes and it should not let law enforcement apply for funding to decrease traffic fatalities and then turn around and use those funds to track people not suspected of any crime.”
The documents show that various state agencies received NHTSA funds for the purchase of ALPRs in order to document highway safety. While much of the grants are intended to be used to study highway safety, traffic congestion or similar benign activities the cameras have been shown to record other perfectly legal behavior. The ACLU has previously released documents that show the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was indeed using ALPRs to photograph vehicle occupants.
“We still do not know how police departments proposed to use license plate readers to improve ‘Safety Belt Performance’; does this mean the government would use the cameras to take pictures of people inside cars to see if they’re wearing seatbelts?” – American Civil Liberties Union
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Grants for the ALPRs have gone to law enforcement agencies in Vermont, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Indiana requested funds, but it is unclear if NHTSA granted the funds. New York Division of Criminal Justice Services requested funding to purchase 70 license plate readers in 2008. It is also unclear if these funds were granted.
In May it was revealed that the FBI invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license-plate reader technology despite conflicts regarding privacy concerns, according to newly released documents from the bureau.
The documents were also released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU. Although heavily redacted, the emails show internal discussion on surveillance concerns related to the network of cameras that are used to capture and store license plate information.
In January TruthInMedia reported that the ACLU revealed the existence of a national program operated by the DEA that collects and analyzes license plate information.
One document shows the DEA has at least 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. Law enforcement in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey are among the agencies providing the DEA with data. The program opened to local and state partners in 2009.
The Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is one of the federal agencies working with the DEA. The documents also reveal the program mining license plate reader data “to identify travel patterns.” The DEA has established 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. A 2010 document also explains that the DEA had by then set up 41 plate reader monitoring stations throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California.