This Labor Day weekend, EFF joins tens of thousands of sci-fi and fantasy fans at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia. Our goal: educate and energize the fandoms about privacy, surveillance, and free speech.
In addition to an epic cosplay activism campaign, our team is sitting on almost a dozen panels covering issues such as domestic surveillance and government transparency. At our table at the Hilton, we’ll be able to give you with practical tips for protecting your privacy using EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense Project, and help you understand what types of technology police are using in your community, with some help from the Street Level Surveillance Project .
Just as we discussed San Diego’s surveillance camera network boondoggle (Voice of San Diego referred to it as “Bumbling Big Brother”) during Comic-Con 2014, here’s a quick round-up of some of the ways law enforcement in the Atlanta area are keeping an eye on you.
Automated License Plate Readers
Law enforcement agencies around the country have embraced Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), surveillance systems made up of network of cameras that capture the license plates of any vehicle that passes within view. Sometimes these cameras are attached to police vehicles, sometimes they’re mounted on telephone poles and traffic lights. While ALPR technology is often used to find stolen or wanted vehicles, it can also be used to identify witnesses, create lists of cars that frequent certain neighborhoods or establishments, and track the patterns of suspected criminal groups. When ALPR data is captured indiscriminately and stored for long periods of time, it can reveal the travel patterns of everyday drivers who aren’t suspected of crimes at all.
According to documents obtained by the ACLU of Georgia [PDF], the Atlanta Police Department invested more than $130,000 in ALPR technology in 2012, including at least 11 mobile cameras and one fixed-location camera. The cameras were purchased from Vigilant Solutions, a company known for its aggressive marketing of the cameras and its immense database of ALPR data to law enforcement agencies around the country.
In nearby Gwinett County, police began using ALPRs in 2011 at a cost of $20,000 per camera. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further reports that the Georgia State Patrol and the Sandy Springs Police Department also use ALPRs. In Sandy Springs’ case, police told the reporter in 2012 that the agency’s one car-mounted ALPR system captured 11-million “reads” in a single year.
IMSI catchers—which go by brand names like “Stingrays” or “DRTBoxes—are devices that mimic cell phone towers in order to determine a cell phone’s location. These are among the more elusive surveillance tools used by law enforcement, since many agencies have signed non-disclosure agreements with the “Stingray” manufacturer, Harris Corp., which has resulted in evidence being withheld from defense attorneys and in some instances, criminal cases have been dropped for fear that the technology would be revealed.
Writing for TheBlot.com, Matthew Keys found that the Gwinett County Police spent roughly $200,000 on Stingrays, which a police spokesperson said the department uses “in criminal investigations with no restrictions on the type of crime.” The Gwinett County District Attorney further admitted on camera to an NBC investigative reporter that, pursuant to a secrecy provision within the county’s contracts with Harris, prosecutors do not disclose specifically the use of Stingrays to defense attorneys, instead only referring to the devices vaguely as “cellphone location technology.”
As of last year, Fulton County did not own its own Stingrays, but instead borrowed the devices from the U.S. Marshals, according to The Atlanta Voice.
Last month, EFF and MuckRock launched a campaign to file public-records requests around the country to expose how local law enforcement uses mobile devices during stops to capture biometric information, such as fingerprints, face recognition, and iris scans. So far, we are still waiting on responses from several agencies in Georgia, including the Atlanta Police Department, Auburn Police Department, Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, and Lawrenceville Police Department.
Shockingly, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) told us they were “unable to locate any records that are responsive to your request.” Apparently GBI didn’t search hard enough: a simple online search turns up many documents [PDF 1, 2] related to the bureau’s RapidID program, in which the state has funded the purchase of portable fingerprint scanners by local law enforcement. The Georgia Department of Public Safety even has a formal “Mobile Biometrics” policy [PDF]. GBI’s most recent monthly report shows about 14,000 RapidID transactions in July 2015.
Meanwhile, foreign travelers beware: in July 2015, Customs and Border Patrol launched a pilot project using mobile biometric devices at the Atlanta airport to capture thumbprints from foreign travelers as they leave the country.
Atlanta is a central location in the Hemisphere Project, a secret program that allows police to access a massive trove of call records going back decades maintained by AT&T. Funded by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, AT&T employees are placed in fusion centers to help police search the records.
However, police are told not to reveal the source of this evidence gathered through Hemisphere and instead are instructed to find another explanation for how they obtained the crime tip. The government calls this process “parallel construction.” We call it “intelligence laundering.”
There are Hemisphere hubs in Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta, the latter of which is run out of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) facilities. According to public records, the Atlanta node processed 617 Hemisphere requests in 2012, representing 22% of all requests filed that year.
EFF has sued the California Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency under public records laws to obtain more information on the Hemisphere program.
To learn more about local law enforcement technology, visit EFF’s Street Level Surveillance site. EFF Activist Nadia Kayyali and Investigative Researcher Dave Maass will discuss these issues more during the Electronics Frontiers Forum track at Dragon Con. Check out the schedule.