More than 70 North Carolina law enforcement agencies are using automatic license plate readers, cell phone location trackers and surveillance cameras to keep an eye, and a mass of data, on ordinary citizens. And soon, they could be able to add unmanned drones to that list.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC) uncovered a wealth of information about surveillance technologies that police and sheriff’s departments use in jurisdictions across the state, through a series of public records requests. Thursday morning, ACLU-NC policy director Sarah Preston and staff attorney Nathan Wessler joined former state Senator and criminal defense attorney Thom Goolsby to host a legislative briefing on privacy and surveillance issues.
While surveillance technology is not new, its use by law enforcement is becoming more widespread in the digital age, and the laws regulating its use have fallen far behind. The federal statute that governs warrantless access to cell phone and email records, for example, has not been updated since 1986. Now, regulating surveillance technology is falling to the states, and the ACLU-NC is pushing for legislation that protects the Fourth Amendment, by requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before collecting certain kinds of digital information on citizens.
“Bills that have been introduced in the past have had bi-partisan support,” Preston said. “This is a great issue to bring forward right now to build common ground (between parties). We are really hopeful that we will see legislators move forward and we’re thankful that they are taking an interest in this.”
Law enforcement agencies can track locations electronically in two ways.
First, they can request historical data from a cell phone service provider, as providers log the sector of the specific cell phone tower that transmitted every phone call made and received, every text message sent and received and every time a phone is used to access data such as email or social media sites. With more and more people using smart phones, more cell phone towers are being built closer together, making law enforcement’s ability to locate someone GPS-level precise.
Though this practice is widespread—the ACL-NCU found that in 2014, AT&T received 30 thousand data requests from law enforcement, and that the numbers of requests are increasing monthly—it could easily be regulated by requiring police to obtain a warrant before receiving the data.
Police can also use their own technology to track location with the purchase of Cell Site Simulators, or Stingrays, from private manufacturers. Stingrays mimic cell phone towers by sending out signals which trick every cell phone in the vicinity into reporting its unique serial number and other data. A cell phone user would have no way to tell if police were tracking their phone.
Stingray use is shrouded in secrecy—the Associated Press reports that the Obama administration instructed police departments not to disclose their use of Stingrays— so it is unclear how much data law enforcement agencies obtain with these devices. But Stingrays can pinpoint an individual cell phone’s location down to a room in a building and law enforcement can track cell phone transmissions and record their locations over time. Regulating these devices will go beyond just having to obtain a warrant, as they gather data from not just one individual cell phone, but from all the cell phones in the vicinity.
“It’s vital to address both historical and real time records,” said ACLU-NC staff attorney Wessler. “Historical records give police a power that in our entire history they have never had before, essentially a time machine that lets police go back in time and see where you have been in the course of days and weeks and months.”
Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR’s)—cameras mounted on stoplights, buildings, police cruisers—can capture thousands of license plates per minute, scan them for red flags and store the time-stamped images indefinitely. While ALPR’s have many non-controversial uses, like matching tags to stolen vehicles or capturing traffic violations, their widespread use and the data they store could allow government agencies to map out a person’s location and movements over time, an invasion of privacy.
In North Carolina, the ACLU-NC found that 11 jurisdictions use ALPR’s without any state regulation, and some agencies store the information for years, regardless of whether there is any suspicion of a crime. Simply requiring the images to be deleted after a period of ten days could be an effective way to regulate these devices.
Unmanned aircraft, or drones, could present a significant new avenue for government surveillance, according to the ACLU-NC. Law enforcement agencies across the country, including in North Carolina, have expressed interest in testing drones, and at least two jurisdictions in the state have purchased drones with surveillance equipment using drug forfeiture funds. The 2014 budget included HB 1066, a bill that ostensibly sought to regulate the use of drones by government agencies but that contained a long list of exceptions that allowed their use without a warrant.
The ACLU-NC is lobbying to amend state law to limit the use of drones “to instances where there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that a drone will collect evidence relating to a specific crime” or where government officials have obtained a warrant. A March, 2014 poll by Public Policy Polling shows that 72 percent of North Carolina voters support requiring a warrant before police could collect information on a person using a drone.
“If you don’t cage your dog it runs everywhere in the neighborhood,” said Sen. Goolsby.
“Once you set the limits up, (law enforcement) can function inside that and they will. We need to do it now as these technologies continue to come forward or it will become more intrusive, and that’s just going to be the way to do business. And that is not the way to do business if you live in a constitutional Republic that you care about.”
What Surveillance Tools do Your Local Law Enforcement Agencies Use?*