Over a year ago we brought you the story of Mr. Filippidis and his family, a Florida Driver who was pulled over by law enforcement in Maryland. The traffic stop would have been typical except for the fact the responding officer demanded, at random, Mr. Filippidis’s firearm.
Mr. Filippidis did not have his legally owned -CCW permitted- hand gun, it was home in Florida. Nor did Mr. Filippidis ever say he had a firearm – yet the officer was insistent Mr. Filippidis owned one, handcuffed Mr. Filippidis, and strip searched his vehicle on the side of the road.
Numerous Maryland state police arrived to assist in the search. They found nothing, because Mr. F was telling the truth. After two hours Mr. Filippidis and his family were allowed to continue their travels, but the entire process was unnerving.
Which prompted Mr. Filippidis to ask “how did a Maryland officer know I was a gun owner”? Which led to a severely awkward litany of obfuscations and explanations from Maryland that did not make sense.
Sensing more to the story, we began an official public records request inquiry to get to the bottom of the issue(s). What we found was a network of federally funded, but state operated, Maryland APLR (automatic license plate readers) which were tied into an intelligence hub (ie database) called MCAC (Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center).
The information within the MCAC database contains a litany of information, including CCW permits, which are data-mined from cooperative state/local/county agency LEO and alternate state controlled governmental databases throughout the country.
The data, essentially a portfolio of all contact a person has with any governmental regulatory agency, is then cross referenced into the vehicle registration (tag) of every licensed car in the system.
What made Mr. Filippidis’s case all the more interesting is that Florida’s CCW permit and registration records are not held in LEO databases; by statute they are kept inside the Florida Dept. of Agriculture database. However, we found out that Maryland, and any state who would so desire, would be able to use the EPIC and NCIC authorization process to assemble the data, regardless of who houses it, if they so desired:
[…] both Maryland and Florida [(850)245-6687] admit there is indeed a way for an authorized central LEO agency to gather, assign, and track CCW with identifying characteristics of the CCW holder (license, tag, name, registration id, etc) IF SUCH AN ENTERPRISE, OR AGENCY, WERE TO CONSTRUCT AN ADDITIONAL DATABASE SPECIFICALLY FOR THAT PURPOSE
Our very specific and continual inquiries made Maryland authorities extremely twitchy because the data hub was, apparently, only a few months active. We could only assume they did not want the general public to be aware of the system and/or its capability.
Research indicated that apparently Maryland was “the test market” for their system, and elements of a larger overall federal tracking system, which had/has bigger objectives in mind.
After numerous conversations, delays and bureaucratic doublespeak we eventually hit a dead end as they officially refused to discuss the APLR and MCAC Data Hub. [And we ran out of money to continue legal proceedings against their avoidance]. Remember, this is Maryland we were going up against – one of the most liberal and litigious states in the union.
However, apparently at least part of the federal program has indeed rolled out, and now the Wall Street Journal has investigated the federal system as outlined in this article.
“DEA Uses License-Plate Readers to Build Database for Federal, Local Authorities”
WASHINGTON—The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.
The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one government document. But the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings to killings to rape suspects, say people familiar with the matter.
Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand the database “throughout the United States,’’ according to one email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Many state and local law-enforcement agencies are accessing the database for a variety of investigations, according to people familiar with the program, putting a wealth of information in the hands of local officials who can track vehicles in real time on major roadways.
The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance. The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
It is unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering.
A spokesman for Justice Department, which includes the DEA, said the program complies with federal law. “It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking intensity,’’ the spokesman said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the government’s use of license-plate readers “raises significant privacy concerns. The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government’s asset-forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern.’’
The senator called for “additional accountability’’ and said Americans shouldn’t have to fear ”their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database.’’
The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.
The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.
The law-enforcement scanners are different from those used to collect tolls.
By 2011, the DEA had about 100 cameras feeding into the database, the documents show. On Interstate 95 in New Jersey, license-plate readers feed data to the DEA—giving law-enforcement personnel around the country the ability to search for a suspect vehicle on one of the country’s busiest highways. One undated internal document shows the program also gathers data from license-plate readers in Florida and Georgia.
“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,’’ said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret.’’
License-plate readers are already used in the U.S. by companies to collect debts and repossess vehicles, and by local police departments to solve crimes.
In 2010, the DEA said in internal documents that the database aided in the seizure of 98 kilograms of cocaine, 8,336 kilograms of marijuana and the collection of $866,380. It also has been connected to the Amber Alert system, to help authorities find abducted children, according to people familiar with the program.
One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture—a controversial practice in which law-enforcement agencies seize cars, cash and other valuables from suspected criminals. The practice is increasingly coming under attack because of instances when law-enforcement officers take such assets without evidence of a crime.
The document said, “…DEA has designed this program to assist with locating, identifying, and seizing bulk currency, guns, and other illicit contraband moving along the southwest border and throughout the United States. With that said, we want to insure we can collect and manage all the data and IT responsibilities that will come with the work to insure the program meets its goals, of which asset forfeiture is primary.’
[…] The data are also shared with U.S. border officials, according to an undated memorandum of understanding between the DEA and Customs and Border Protection officials. That document shows the two agencies specifically said that lawmakers might never specifically fund the work, stating: “this in no way implies that Congress will appropriate funds for such expenditures.’’
The disclosure of the DEA’s license-plate reader database comes on the heels of other revelations in recent months about the Justice Department, as well as the agencies it runs, gathering data about innocent Americans as it searches for criminals.
In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives. Justice Department officials have said the program is legal.
Earlier this month, the DEA filed court documents indicating that for more than a decade it had gathered the phone records of Americans calling foreign countries, without judicial oversight, to sift through that data looking for drug suspects. That program was canceled in 2013. (read more – WSJ paywall)