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A License To Spy

On June 6, 2012, in federal, states, by Scott Alexander Meiner

Salient reporting from Citynewswatch.blogspot.com highlighting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s (CMPD) escalation of a predictive data-mining and surveillance infrastructure in advance of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD is not unusual but rather instructive. Funding is derived from asset forfeiture dollars (routed through the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing program to avoid North Carolina’s constitutional requirement that forfeitures go to education), a partnership with Nationwide Insurance, and federal grants (in this case, DHS’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI)). In lieu of merely employing Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) to identify and alert law enforcement to stolen or wanted vehicles, the expanded system facilitates predictive mosaics of individual citizenry by feeding time-stamped location scans into surveillance databases. An April 29th, 2011 copy of CMPD’s standing operating procedure revealed that exact time place vehicle data (for CMPD’s existing mounted ALPRs) is stored for 18 months on Charlotte-Mecklenburg servers (unless a CMPD officer chooses to have the system store particular data for longer). However, data scans cross-interface international surveillance databases and thus are, at least theoretically, without an expiration date. CMPD is contracting the expansion of their municipal spy program through British surveillance outfit NDI Recognition Systems.

A 2010 study from the George Mason University Center For Evidence-Based Crime Policy Department of Criminology, Law, And Society suggests that CMPD’s financing of the ALPRs is typical:

Of the 35 agencies in our sample that responded that they currently use LPR [License Plate Readers], the vast majority (85.7%) used four or fewer LPR devices. Most of these agencies received funding for LPR systems through state or federal grant programs, although a significant number (10 agencies) used asset forfeiture funds, resources from private vehicle insurance companies, and other non-grant or agency budgetary sources to purchase LPR systems. It is clear the diffusion of this technology seems supported by external funding sources.

Permitting direct external funding sources for police is a remarkably bad idea-particularly for new technologies that raise controversial privacy concerns. Not only do the citizenry find their power to control the police in their power to direct the funding of the police-a dynamic ensuring a direct check on the police by giving the citizens the ability to to choose how they want the police to behave-but the appropriation process itself forces scrutiny. Citizenry are invariably better briefed on issues where citizens choose whether, and to what extent, they want to foot the bill. It also gives leverage to compel public disclosure of police behavior. That is largely absent here.

Instead, various agencies in the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security are shipping billions of dollars to nearly any department willing to receive ALPR and data-mining technology. This is done without meaningful debate about what limits-if any-that we want on the technology and data-mine usage. Legislation prescribing protocols is scant. Judicial cues are muddled. Policy is a series of ad hoc choices by those with access to the technology. Even if one brushes aside all of the privacy and control concerns of law abiding adults, ALPRs record, scan, and disseminate time-stamped locations of thousands of juveniles every day. That information is transmitted across state (and international) lines to law enforcement and private interested parties-and there is neither process nor mechanism to conclusively delete the data (let alone deter its initial capture and dissemination). Several states have strong privacy protections for minors and even those that relax the standards for law enforcement often frown on dissemination to private corporations. Given today’s climate of pervasive qualified immunity, presumptively state actors might escape liability. That does not mean that it is a good or reasonable policy.

Of equal concern, we have little clue as to where, and to whom, the data is going. In addition to law enforcement, towing companies and booting teams use ALPRs to locate vehicles associated with unpaid taxes and parking tickets-essentially a reinvigorated private prosecution system. ALPR data is also shared with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a private consortium of property and casualty insurance companies, self-insured organizations, rental car companies, parking services providers, and transportation-related firms. (NICB uses and doles out ALPR equipment too-including arrangements with the incarceration prone Louisiana Insurance Commissioner’s Office.

It is farcical to believe that the information is secure. PoliceOne.com lists 19 different ALPR manufacturers. That means different proprietary designs used by tens of thousands of users without consistent policy guidelines or membership controls. Pervasive low level clearance and diffuse operating systems means security breaches (assuming any attempt at security).

Further, we know little of the companies selling the products or hosting the networks. Vigilant Video (which boasts an ever increasing private database of 659,000,000+ license plate scans derived from ALPRs) recently hired Capital One executives Stanley Westreich and Pierre Leroy. Perhaps nothing is untoward in their involvement but it ought to raise eyebrows when private ALPR and predictive surveillance firms fill senior leadership positions with individuals associated with credit card companies who could complete lucrative mosaics-particularly while taxpayers finance the infrastructure with taxes and loss of privacy. It should also be noted that Vigilant Video markets itself as being able to find witnesses (not just suspects but it identifies when witnesses are in new or unexpected locations as well) via ALPR predictive technology and markets ALPR use in revenue generation.

Elsag North America, a “leading manufacturer of advanced Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems in the U.S.” is locally partnered with Bancorp Bank and Mears Motor Leasing and owned by troubled Italian security conglomerate Finmeccanica-of which the Italian government controls a 30% stake and the Libyan Investment Authority controls 2% (originally purchased by Muammar Gaddafi’s despotic regime).

PIPS Technology, of Federal Signal Company, is partnered with telecommunications giant Motorola and Intuidex, a leader in advanced data analysis, decision support solutions, and predictive modeling.

Elsag and Motorola are both recognized ‘friends’ (along with various state and federal law enforcement agencies as well other law enforcement technology suppliers) of North Carolina’s Criminal Justice Information Network (CJIN)-which submits annual strategic direction and recommendations to “Chairs of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, the Chairs of the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees on Justice and Public Safety, and the Fiscal Research Division of the General Assembly.”  CJIN also conducts a number of influential policy and procedure workshops-advancing grants, law enforcement, law enforcement suppliers, law enforcement sharing, and interoperability-including the promotion of (and policies for) Automatic License Plate Readers.

Perhaps such concerns would be mitigated if all law enforcement evinced perfect omnibenevolence. Unfortunately, that would not appear to be the case-at least in North Carolina. Cursory internet searches of North Carolina law enforcement misconduct return numerous recent issues handling forfeiture funds, drugs, evidence, and transparency (and there is far worse if you can stomach it…CATO’s www.policemisconduct.net -with the 2009 & 2010 Injustice Everywhere databases is a good place to start)

Alamance County Sherrif’s Department: Subject of an ongoing DOJ investigation and lawsuit that began with videos allegedly indicating illegal searches and seizures by the sheriff’s department. The DOJ filed suit for a judicial declaration that it may interview employees of the department after the county attorney refused production and employee availability.

Asheville Police Department: Drugs, guns, and cash go missing from the evidence room. Thus far, Asheville PD have been successful in suppressing audit findings.

Benson Police Department: Former narcotics detective and K9 officer pleads guilty to obstructing justice and altering destroying or stealing evidence of criminal conduct incident to his admission that he stole cash out of a locked office. The cash was evidence in alleged drug activities.

Brunswick Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff indicted on embezzlement and obstruction of justice. Later pleads guilty.

Cateret County Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff and four deputies indicted. Sheriff eventually sentenced to 14 months in prison, three years supervised release, and ordered to pay $84,880 in restitution for embezzling covert drug investigation funds.

Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department: Deputy indicted on 60 counts related to allegedly receiving pay for working off-duty security jobs at overlapping times and locations.

Davie County Sheriff’s Department: Deputy sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after his suspicious wife located and reported evidence of an affair and the drugs illegally filched by the evidence technician with whom he was having an affair. The technician pleaded guilty to counts of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Durham Police Department: Officer accused of threatening home owners, extortion, and breaking and entering. In a separate investigation an officer was indicted after public revelations of using a patrol car to deal crack cocaine.

Durham County Sheriff’s Department: Deputy pleads guilty to 25 counts of embezzlement involving $97,000 in county funds. Cocaine possession and other embezzlement charges apparently dropped incident to plea.

Fair Bluff Police Department: Police chief indicted after Fair Bluff officers accused their police chief of staging a robbery. Indictment includes allegations of conspiracies to traffic prescription drugs and cocaine.

Iredell County Sheriff’s Department: Sergeant indicted for obstruction of justice amid allegations of embezzlement.

Kingston Police Department: Police chief pleads guilty after investigation reveals that he forged checks and choked a female minor.

Leland Police Department: Investigations from the NC Attorney General, State Bureau of Investigation, and FBI continue. Fallout, thus far, includes the dismissal of the police chief; the resignation of the interim police chief who followed the dismissed police chief; and multiple suspensions and a couple of officer terminations.

Lenoir Police Department: Narcotics detective charged with trafficking heroin and opium two months after resignation.

Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff indicted for obstruction of justice. Charges dropped. Prosecutors indicate an expanded investigation and that charges will be refiled contingent on findings.

Mooresville Police Department: Former Police Chief indicted for stealing federal forfeiture funds.

New Bern Police Department: Former narcotics officer and current field training officer ”charged with four felony counts of obstruction of justice and three felony counts of altering, destroying or stealing evidence of criminal conduct” incident to stealing drugs from the evidence room.

Raleigh Police Department: Officer charged with attempting to obtain a controlled substance by fraud after submitting the prescription of a dead man.

Robeson County Sheriff’s Department:  Robeson ranked first in the state in cash received per capita as part of the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program. Problems ensued. Numerous deputies eventually pleaded guilty to stealing cash seized incident to traffic stops. More exotic convictions included ”conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the government, conspiracy to commit satellite piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnaping, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence” as part of the Department of Justice’s Operation Tarnished Badge investigation of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff and 21 others (of approximately 120 employees) were convicted.

Southport Police Department: Officer indicted on numerous charges including larceny, stealing of evidence, embezzlement, and obstruction of justice.

Spring Lake Police Department: The town of Spring Lake suspended its entire police department after grand jury investigations brought a combined 31 charges against two officers including embezzlement by a police officer, obtaining property by false pretences, larceny, obstruction of justice, breaking and entering, and kidnapping.  The Spring Lake Police Chief resigned after he a Spring Lake Police sergeant were observed shredding documents until 2.30 a.m immediately following the indictments. Law enforcement functions were turned over to the Cumberland Sheriff’s Department. Cumberland District Attorney Ed Grannis promptly “dismissed all pending misdemeanor cases in Spring Lake, saying that he suspects senior officers of lying and directing other officers to fabricate facts in police reports.”

Stanly County Sheriff’s Department: Deputy charged with trafficking schedule III drugs.

Wake County Sheriff’s Department: Investigations into two deputy officers for theft of narcotics and cash. One officer charged “with two counts of embezzlement and one count of possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana.” Suspicions heightened after the officer allegedly substituted a “bag containing blank paper sandwiched between two $1 bills” for a bag containing $6,435 and narcotics that Wake County Sheriff’s Department had earlier entered as evidence and then allowed the deputy to check out.

Washington County Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff sent to prison for embezzling department funds. Undeterred, he runs for sheriff again upon release.


Which is to say that “trust us-we’re the police” is not a sufficient safeguard (nor has it ever been). The people need complete control of the appropriation process with the levers to compel transparency and accountability. As he often did, James Madison put it well.

The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure. -Federalist #58



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