Friday, May 29, 2009

Provision buried in HB 300 would authorize local and federal agencies to install license plate readers on Texas highways

Coming to a Texas highway near you: License plate readers


Forrest Wilder
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

Deep in the Senate's version of the massive TXDoT bill is a provision that, if not stripped out in conference committee, will allow local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to install license plate reading cameras on Texas highways. The technology - already in widespread use in surveillance-crazy Britain - is very powerful, enabling the government to automatically photograph the license plates of moving vehicles and check the information against databases. If the system finds a "match," officers can be alerted.

According to law enforcement, automated license plate recognition systems are extremely efficient at finding stolen vehicles or finding abudcted children. However, the technology could also be used to collect vast amounts of information on the movement of individuals, raising civil liberties and privacy concerns. In Texas, with our proud libertarian streak, those concerns may be especially resonant.

"It's unacceptable to Texans for the government, particularly the federal government, to be tracking their movements on Texas highways and storing that information indefinitely," said Rebecca Bernhardt of the ACLU.

Abuses are already occurring in the UK. According to a BBC story from just a week ago:

John Catt found himself on the wrong side of the ANPR [Automatic Number Plate Recognition] system. He regularly attends anti-war demonstrations outside a factory in Brighton, his home town.

It was at one of these protests that Sussex police put a "marker" on his car. That meant he was added to a "hotlist".

This is a system meant for criminals but John Catt has not been convicted of anything and on a trip to London, the pensioner found himself pulled over by an anti-terror unit.

"I was threatened under the Terrorist Act. I had to answer every question they put to me, and if there were any questions I would refuse to answer, I would be arrested. I thought to myself, what kind of world are we living in?

Bernhardt says that without "meaningful limits," government authorities may be tempted to use the data for dubious purposes.

In fact, according to documents recently obtained by the Observer through the Texas Public Information Act, license plate information collected in the north Dallas suburbs may soon be entered into an intelligence database maintained by the North Central Texas Fusion System.

"Collin County is getting a license plate recognition system now," wrote Anita Miller, the wife in the husband-and-wife team that runs the fusion system from New Mexico, to Larry Barclay, of the Arlington Police Department, in a March 18 email. "The plans are for the Fusion System to be able to query that data this year."

As we highlighted in "Dr Bob's Terror Shop," the North Central Texas Fusion System is engaged in an unsettling experiment with data collection and mining.

The architect and operator of the system, Dr. Bob Johnson, the son of Plano Congressman Sam Johnson, attracted attention earlier this year for writing and disseminating a memo that singled out anti-war and Muslim organizations as terror threats and called on law enforcement to "report" the groups' activities.

The fusion system claims to have several terabyes of data stored on its system from sources as varied as social networking sites (e.g. Facebook or MySpace), jail records, arrest information, transcripts of jailhouse telephone conversations, and other data. This collected information is accessible to some 970 users, mostly law enforcement but also apparently health offciais, private security personnel, fire marshals, and others. Johnson has also deployed data-mining software to look for patterns in the information that might point to criminal or terrorist activities

"I think it is deeply troubling particularly because these fusion centers are not accountable to a specific government entity or have any meaningful privacy oversight," said the ACLU's Bernhardt.

One major caveat in all this is that a provision in the state budget blocks the Department of Public Safety from spending funds on license plate readers unless information not linked to stolen vehicles is "systematically purged." That language was strongly supported by the ACLU. However, it appears to apply solely to DPS while HB 300 authorizes local and federal agencies to install license plate readers on Texas highways, not just DPS.

Last summer the feds offered to spend $15 million installing license readers on Texas higways but TXDoT said that would be against the law. The provision in the Senate version of HB 300, the TXDoT, appears to clear the way.

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