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EPIC FOIA: Automated License Plate Readers and Border Checkpoint Body Scanners

Introduction

On June 7, 2011, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the several federal agencies for agency records that related to the use of automated license plate readers. On December 19, 2011, EPIC received responsive documents that detail the development of border checkpoint scanners that integrate automated license plate readers, closed circuit television, and whole body imaging technology.

Background

Along the southern border of the United States, US Customs and Border Protection has begun implementing portal scanning devices which combine whole body imaging technology, closed circuit television (CCTV) and automated license plate readers (ALPR).

Automated License Plate Reader ("ALPR") systems are mobile and stationary camera arrays that read license plate numbers and check them against a central database. An ALPR system is able to read the plate by using optical character recognition, the same technology used in document scanners, to render the characters of a license plate from a digital image captured by a camera. ALPR systems can read and capture up to 1,800 license plates every minute. Mobile ALPR systems work in both stationary and moving vehicles, and alert the operator when a match in the database is found. Stationary systems work in much the same way but are usually affixed to entrances of facilities, bridges, tunnels, and other landmarks. ALPR systems are deployed in all fifty states and by a number of federal law enforcement agencies. In addition to checking the plate against a database, the ALPR systems also store data from every plate that is read. The plate number, date/time stamp, photo of the vehicle and surrounding area, and GPS coordinates are all stored in an electronic database. This data can be used to identify potential witnesses, develop watch-lists, place suspects at the scene of a crime, interdict terrorists, and identify and recognize patterns. The length of time this data is retained is at the discretion of the operator of the ALPR.

CCTV cameras are designed to record, often covertly, activities in a given area. The images are then viewed remotely. In most cases, cameras are hidden from view or disguised so as to be undetected by those passing by the camera's gaze. Some cameras can swivel and zoom in. In recent years, law enforcement has been increasing its use of CCTV technology for surveillance of public spaces.

Whole Body Imaging machines use x-rays(or, in some cases, millimeter wave technology) to produce detailed, three-dimensional images of individuals. Security experts have described whole body scanners as the equivalent of "a physically invasive strip-search." Backscatter whole body imaging machines produce potentially hazardous iodizing radiation. These machines have previously been used in airports and tested in New Jersey PATH train stations.

EPIC's Interest

EPIC has been involved in evaluating the privacy implications of and informing the public about automated license plate readers, closed-circuit television, and whole body imaging machines for many years.

EPIC has previously worked to inform the public about the privacy risks posed by ALPR use in the United States and abroad.

EPIC has frequently documented the spread of CCTV technology across American cities and, in 2005, launched a Spotlight on Surveillance project focusing on the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s use of CCTV for public surveillance within the city.

EPIC has also done extensive work related to whole body imaging. EPIC has uncovered a number of DHS and TSA records that contradict statements made by those agencies through its FOIA lawsuit, EPIC v. Department of Homeland Security, and related FOIA requests. These documents revealed that body scanner machines were designed to capture and store traveler images, despite the TSA's claims to the contrary. EPIC has also obtained documents detailing radiation risks posed by backscatter whole body imaging machines.

EPIC's Freedom of Information Act Request

Because of the potential privacy problems posed by automated license plate readers, on June 7, 2011, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense (DOD), and Department of Justice (DOJ) for agency records that related to the use of ALPR. EPIC requested the following agency records:

  • 1. All records, final or draft, concerning the customization or purchase of ALPR systems.
  • 2. All records, final or draft, of communication to ALPR vendors concerning customization or purchase of ALPR systems.
  • 3. All records, final or draft, containing technical specifications for the customization or purchase of ALPR systems.
  • 4. All contracts, final or draft, regarding the purchase or customization or purchase of ALPR systems.
  • 5. All records, final or draft, regarding the evaluation of ALPR systems.

Documents

On December 19, 2011, EPIC received several hundred pages of responsive documents from the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection Component. These documents detail the development of border portal scanning systems that would scan vehicles with the driver and passengers still inside. These portal scanners, which are apparently already in place along the United States' southern border, integrate automated license plate readers with whole body imaging and closed circuit television.

As detailed in the American Science and Engineering contracts, the portal scanners are designed to penetrate glass and metal components of vehicles. The portal scanners would scan vehicles with passengers still inside, and would expose those passengers to potentially dangerous iodizing radiation. The documents also have no mention of privacy protections and fail to explain what would happen with the images generated by the machine.

On February 02, 2012, EPIC received several hundred more pages of documents from the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection Component.