Virginia state police surveilled and recorded license plates at routine political gatherings

By David Ferguson
Wednesday, October 9, 2013 14:58 EDT
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Surveillance cameras on utility pole via Shutterstock
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The American Civil Liberties Union revealed Wednesday that Virginia State Police (VSP) used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to record the identities and locations of people attending political events in the state, including President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and 2008 campaign rallies for both Democratic and Republican candidates.

According to a press release at ACLU.org, state law enforcement agencies went on to compile a massive database of Virginians that they used to track the location of citizens throughout the state.

The ACLU obtained information about the program through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, and says that the findings further illustrate the need for strict oversight of government use of technology to spy on citizens.

The organization said that while ALPRs have a legitimate function in law enforcement — tracking stolen vehicles or those which are frequently involved in crimes — the Virginia program “crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance.”

In recording the license plate numbers and personal information of people headed to a political event but not suspected of any wrongdoing or charged with any crime, the VSP is restricting citizens’ ability to freely express themselves. If people are not allowed to attend political events without being recorded, said the ACLU, the VSP will “chill this fundamental form of expression.”

Well after the fact, the VSP consulted with far-right Republican Attorney General of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli early this year regarding the legality of the license plate surveillance program. Even the arch conservative Cuccinelli forcefully argued against the routine use of such license plate readers.

In a memo dated Feb. 13, Cuccinelli wrote to the VSP that such information gathering practices should only be undertaken “provided such data specifically pertains to investigations and intelligence gathering relating to criminal activity.”

In the wake of the memo, said the ACLU, the VSP wiped its database of license plate numbers and instituted a policy that any data collected that isn’t germane to an investigation must be destroyed within 24 hours of collection.

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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