Virginia state police recorded license tags of rally attendees; new details emerge on federal spying


The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond,Virginia has a piece out showing that Virginia State Police recorded the license plate numbers of attendees at political rallies in support of President Obama during the last election cycle. According to the report, every single tag was recorded. Police officials can record license tags, although those recordings are typically taken while on the road in an effort to find stolen vehicles or fugitives. This request was made by the Secret Service, which asked for the lists as a “security precaution.”

The recordings are notable as details continue to emerge about the extent of the federally backed domestic and international dragnet tracking the movements of individuals. Virginia officials acting on a ruling in 2010 from then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, are said to have purged license plate data which would have included the 2009 recordings from political rallies. However, given that the request came from the Secret Service, it is likely that the 2009 data remains in federal files.

In 2010 Cuccinelli said that local law enforcement keeping license plate data that was not part of an active investigation, on a passive and indefinite basis may put the state in violation of its Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. Going forward, police keep such data for 24 hours if not directly relevant to an investigation.

The ACLU has recently raised the issue of tracking citizens through the use of license plate readers. Some of this same tracking is also being done and sold by public companies. The ACLU report shows state regulations around the use of such data differ widely from place to place. Different local laws coupled with requests like that of the Secret Service may indicate broader federal tracking and retention of such data than citizens are aware of.

License plate tracking is an additional, and arguably more identifiable type of tracking than cellphone metadata, as tag numbers, and car types are readily and easily cross checked by law enforcement already. The story comes amid growing concerns over federal spying generally.

Two other stories of note emerged around the same time, one from the Indian newspaper, The Hindu which notes that India is working closely with US security officials to improve local surveillance and security techniques in that country. According to the piece:

With the growing population in cities and increasing threat perception, the U.S. has also offered India to help develop the concept of megacity policing, a step it has been promoting since the 9/11 attacks.

“An advance course in surveillance, control room design and its operation by various security agencies and police authorities are key elements of this concept. A high-level workshop is being planned for senior police and intelligence officers from both sides in megacity policing. Similarly, various agencies involved in emergency services will also be trained on public safety and crisis management, while specialised Operation Security for Public Safety Agencies Counter Terrorism Training Programme and Critical Incident Response Training Programme jointly by the FLETC and the U.S. Border and Custom Protection are also being planned,” the official said.

Another area of focus would be in cyber security and critical infrastructure protection, where training modules would comprise best practices in cyber security and cyber forensics, advance course in technical surveillance counter measures, control systems security programme for end-to-end network and systems security for servers, routers, switches, transmission and all information and communication technology (ICT) hubs and facilities.

An ambitious collaboration plan for setting up an advance institute for master trainers in the area of encryption/decryption was also in the pipeline. For critical infrastructure protection, the programmes planned are for sectors like ICT; oil and energy; telecom; banking and financial services; civil aviation and transport where technocrats and officials from concerned ministries will be trained.

Additionally, one of the questions arising in the immediate aftermath of the Edward Snowden affair, was whether spying would threaten the competitiveness of US technology companies. The short answer to that question is yes. So far, two private communications companies Silent Circle and Lavabit have announced they will shut down services due in part to pressure to allow access to user data from the NSA. On Friday, the CEO of Lavabit said publicly that he may now be facing arrest for shutting down his company instead of giving the NSA a backdoor.

When Lavabit shut down, the CEO said that he did so rather than kowtow to the NSA and provide generic and continuous access to user data. On Friday, Lavabit founder, Ladar Levison told NBC news that he may be facing arrest for suspending operations. Apparently, shutting down, could be viewed as violation of the court order allowing surveillance and may put Mr. Levison in contempt of court.