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Virginia State Police Used License Plate Readers At Political Rallies, Built Huge Database

From 2010 until last spring, the Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times. Even more disturbing, the agency used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to collect information about political activities of law-abiding people. The VSP recorded the license plates of vehicles attending President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (Documentation of this program, disclosed in response to an ACLU of Virginia public records request, can be found here.) These practices starkly illustrate the need for tight controls on government use of technology for surveillance purposes.

To be sure, there are legitimate law enforcement purposes for ALPR. Some law enforcement agencies maintain “hot lists” of vehicles that are stolen or that have been used in crimes. Data from ALPRs can be instantaneously checked against these lists to quickly locate suspect vehicles. The impact on privacy rights is minimal as long as information about license plates not on the hot list is disposed of promptly.

But by creating and maintaining a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, the VSP crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance. In the cases of the campaign rallies and the 2009 inauguration, the VSP collected personally identifying information on drivers solely because those drivers were heading to a political event. These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully.

[Story Continues Here]

Originally posted to ShockandAwed on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 12:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by Virginia Kos.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This ought to be REALLY DISTURBING to Americans (9+ / 0-)

    all across the political spectrum.  

    "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 12:28:11 PM PDT

    •  And especially Virginians. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The Virginia State Police is not a politically-neutral organization.  They have their own agendas, and putting them in possession of massive information streams is akin to enabling the KGB.  Coming back to the state after a decade in Ohio, I was shocked by the degree to which this has become an obvious police surveillance state.  Every state office (I mean, even the girls who hand out free infant formula) now has an appointed Security Officer.  Every employee has to have an FBI background check before hire.  Computer credentialing is set up to require that you register the answers to a half-dozen highly personal questions on-line in a permanent record linked to your employee file.  And as all the employees enforcing these regulations are very low-level, often contract help with no job security or independent authority, they lack even the flexibility often shown by KGB or SS troopers to make decisions on their own initiative (or accept payoffs).

  •  I'd like to think this is a Republican plot since (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MRA NY, kurt

    it was done under a Republican governor, but from the diary it seems like it has no political agenda per se, but is more of an overall collection activity like what the FBI does.

    •  The collection of the data... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cosette, ColoTim, kurt, 207wickedgood

      ...took place in 2008-09, when (now Senator) Tim Kaine, a Democrat, was governor of Virginia.

      The data retention in 2010, though, was during Bob McDonnell's term in office.

      The article isn't quite clear on what was being done with the data between its collection in 2008-09, and its being put into a database in 2010.

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

      by JamesGG on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 01:15:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I wonder if the Secret Service was involved too. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The article mentions that the data was collected at the Obama 2009 inauguration and rallies for Barack Obama and Sarah Palin when she was a VP candidate; the one thing they have in common is that they were under Secret Service protection at the time of those events.

    If I'm recalling correctly, when it's an event involving a Secret Service protectee, the Secret Service basically takes over everything and coordinates the local and state PDs' actions.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the Secret Service does have some kind of Big Data-esque tracking for protectees' public appearances, to see if certain people have an unusual pattern of attending certain events or to flag if a certain license plate is read. And quite frankly, given the huge task they have, I don't necessarily mind if the Secret Service is collecting and using that kind of data to see if they can spot patterns.

    However, the VSP keeping that data after the events in question, rather than simply handing it over to the Secret Service (if they were in fact directed to collect that data for the Secret Service), is unacceptable.

    "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

    by JamesGG on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 01:13:06 PM PDT

  •  The part of the story (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ShockandAwed, cosette, MRA NY, kurt, adrianrf

    ...that needs to be acknowledged is that the Cooch ordered them to dismantle the database, or at least that was the information in the ACLU article.

    Belatedly, the VSP asked Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli about the legality of its information-gathering practices. In a strong opinion, Cuccinelli explained that the use of ALPRs for “passive” collection of information violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. That is, law enforcement may use ALPRs to search for specific vehicles suspected of involvement in criminal activity, but it may not simply collect and save data on thousands of vehicles for which there is no grounds for suspicion.
    When it's too much for the Cooch, you know that the Virginia State Patrol went over the line.

    50 states, 210 media market, 435 Congressional Districts, 3080 counties, 192,480 precincts

    by TarheelDem on Wed Oct 09, 2013 at 01:18:45 PM PDT

  •  The ACLU (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, LuvSet, adrianrf

    won a similar lawsuit against the Denver police several years ago. Denver police had also started files on people who attended peaceful protests and rallies. They didn't have plate readers, as far as I know, but walked around taking pictures and writing down license plate numbers.

  •  The inauguration (0+ / 0-)

    was on the Mall, where there is almost no place to park, so people would have parked all over the place near Metros or what have you, but many other people also park near the Metro to go to work, etc. I don't even understand how it would be possible to know which cars were 'attending the inauguration'.

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