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License plate readers used to record attendees at political rallies

License plate readers used to record attendees at political rallies
Heeding the demands of the Secret Service, state police in Virginia recorded and collected the whereabouts of potentially millions of people in an effort to monitor attendees at political rallies in 2008 and 2009.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the Virginia state capital show that police agencies utilized license plate readers in order to record information about people traveling to at least three politically-charged events during the 2008 presidential election season.

According to the documents obtained by the paper, Virginia State Police logged license plate data for every vehicle leaving the state en route to neighboring Washington, DC during President Barack Obama’s first inauguration ceremony in January 2009. Three months earlier, the police ran a similar operation to coincide with campaign rallies in Leesburg, Virginia being held by then-candidate Obama and Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s nominee for vice president.

Mark Bowes, a reporter with The Dispatch, wrote that the United States Secret Service directed state police to use a license plate reader positioned at the Pentagon in Arlington, VA to “to capture and store the plate images as an extra level of security for the inauguration.” Similar requests were made for the preceding rallies outside of DC, he reported.

The Dispatch has not published information about how many vehicles had their location recorded and logged, but Bowes noted that an estimated 1.8 million people attended Pres. Obama’s inauguration in Jan. 2009.

How much of that information still exists, if any, remains a mystery, however. In February, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli authorized legislation forcing the state police to stop storing data in a “passive matter,” and intelligence is now erased after 24 hours unless investigators believes it’s relevant to an ongoing criminal case. When Cuccinelli made that directive in February, it impacted the information from roughly 8 million license plates scanned over the span of 2010 through early 2013. Bailey McCann wrote for CivSource online, though, that the data is likely still accessible since it was collected per the orders of the Secret Service, the federal law enforcement agency that provides security detail for US presidents and other persons of high-importance and serves as a function of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Dispatch’s revelation comes amid growing concerns of federal-ordered surveillance within the US, as well as a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union detailing how law enforcement agencies across America are increasingly relying on license plate scanners as a crime-fighting tool. But despite proponents of the technology calling the devices instrumental in finding criminal suspects and stole vehicles, scanners like the ones used in Virginia have raised a number of privacy questions from the likes of the ACLU and others.

At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons,” ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump wrote in July when her non-partisan group published their profile on the scanners. “But increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.”

As it becomes increasingly clear that ours is an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology, it is critical we learn how this technology is being used,” Crump wrote. “License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.”

Claire Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, told The Dispatch that she found recording information pertaining to attendees of political rallies “pretty astounding.”

It’s a situation where you’re collecting a lot of information on a lot of people to potentially use if something bad happens at some unspecified future time and some unspecified situation,” Gastañaga said. According to her, that reasoning “would justify a camera on every street corner recording all of our movements at all times, because it would be expedient to be able to have that to refer back to if there’s a bank robbery there two years from now.”

As RT reported last month, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department currently has over 300 cameras that can be used to record car and pedestrian traffic on city roadways, and the department is currently pushing on a way that will allow more city cops the ability to monitor those video feeds in real-time.