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CBP says it’s ‘unrealistic’ for Americans to avoid its license plate surveillance

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection has admitted that there is no practical way for Americans to avoid having their movements tracked by its license plate readers, according to its latest privacy assessment.

CBP published its new assessment — three years after its first — to notify the public that it plans to tap into a commercial database, which aggregates license plate data from both private and public sources, as part of its border enforcement efforts.

The U.S. has a massive network of license plate readers, typically found on the roadside, to collect and record the license plates of vehicles passing by. License plate readers can capture thousands of license plates each minute. License plates are recorded and stored in massive databases, giving police and law enforcement agencies the ability to track millions of vehicles across the country.

The agency updated its privacy assessment in part because Americans “may not be aware” that the agency can collect their license plate data.

“CBP cannot provide timely notice of license plate reads obtained from various sources outside of its control,” the privacy assessment said. “Many areas of both public and private property have signage that alerts individuals that the area is under surveillance; however, this signage does not consistently include a description of how and with whom such data may be shared.”

But buried in the document, the agency admitted: “The only way to opt out of such surveillance is to avoid the impacted area, which may pose significant hardships and be generally unrealistic.”

CBP struck a similar tone in 2017 during a trial that scanned the faces of American travelers as they departed the U.S., a move that drew ire from civil liberties advocates at the time. CBP told Americans that travelers who wanted to opt-out of the face scanning had to “refrain from traveling.”

The document added that the privacy risk to Americans is “enhanced” because the agency “may access [license plate data] captured anywhere in the United States,” including outside of the 100-mile border zone within which the CBP typically operates.

CBP said that it will reduce the risk by only accessing license plate data when there is “circumstantial or supporting evidence” to further an investigation, and will only let CBP agents access data within a five-year period from the date of the search.

When asked about its privacy assessment, CBP spokesperson Matthew Dyman responded: “How would you be able to opt out of a license plate reader? Can I opt out of speed cameras here in DC?”

CBP doesn’t have the best track record with license plate data. Last year, CBP confirmed that a subcontractor, Perceptics, improperly copied license plate data on “fewer than 100,000” people over a period of a month-and-a-half at a U.S. port of entry on the southern border. The agency later suspended its contract with Perceptics.

Updated with CBP response. 

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4 days ago
We live in a panopticon. Our movements are continually tracked and stored for data analysis. Somewhere along the line, we have lost our 'right to privacy' - and nobody seems to care. It seems that the only way to grab back some small degree of privacy would be to wear a burka, pay for everything with cash, don't carry a phone, and take public transit.
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Feds indict men for disguising pot payments as orders for dog toys and soda

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Life is strict and regimented for these industrial cannabis plants.

Enlarge / Marijuana plants in a greenhouse in Santa Cruz, California. (credit: Ian Philip Miller / Getty Images)

On March 9, 2020, a German IT consultant named Ruben Weigand had a layover in Los Angeles as he traveled from Switzerland to Costa Rica. He never made it to his destination because US authorities arrested him as he was changing planes.

The feds say Weigand and a co-conspirator, Hamid "Ray" Akhavan, were the masterminds behind a multimillion-dollar bank-fraud scheme. The supposed fraud? Tricking US banks into processing more than $100 million in marijuana transactions that went contrary to the banks' rules. According to a March indictment, the pair disguised marijuana transactions as purchases of dog toys, carbonated drinks, diving gear, and other products unrelated to cannabis.

Lawyers for the two men say this is ludicrous because the alleged bank fraud had no victims. The customers knew exactly what they were paying for. The banks involved suffered no losses—in fact, they made money from transaction fees.

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7 days ago
This makes no sense. If I put my money in the bank, and want to buy something with my money, why does the bank or credit card company care what I'm buying? It's *my* money. This is one of the biggest arguments for bitcoin etc.
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Unbridled Surveillance Will Not Save Us From COVID-19

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We all share the fervent desire to reopen society, to hug our friends and loved ones, to jump start the economy, and to return to the many activities that have been off limits since COVID-19 engulfed our communities.

For many, there may be a temptation to turn to invasive technologies – from temperature screening devices to contact tracing apps – that promise to stem the virus’ spread while permitting us to return to our normal routines. Many of these technologies collect the intimate details of our lives: our health status and symptoms, our associations, our locations and movements, and in some cases, even the details of our faces.

Surveillance technologies are not panaceas, and without appropriate safeguards and community trust, many technologies will cause more harm than good. In fact, some surveillance tech is simply public health theater that offers a false sense of security and provides no actual protection from the coronavirus.

When your employer, your gym, your local grocery store, or your local government suggests a new COVID surveillance gadget, here are some questions to ask, as well as some answers to keep in your back pocket.

Does it work?

Tucked into this question is another, threshold question: what does it mean to “work”? What is the goal the technology aims to achieve? What metrics will be used to measure effectiveness? What level of false positives or false negatives will be tolerated? These questions are best answered in conjunction with public health experts. In the meantime, here is what we know about some of the most popular technologies out there:

Temperature Screening

Putting aside the remarkable variability in accuracy of various temperature screening devices (pro-tip: standoff fever detectors are particularly unreliable), using elevated temperature as a proxy for COVID-19 status is both woefully under- and over-inclusive.

COVID-19 is contagious before symptoms appear, and many people remain asymptomatic for the entire course of infection. Others may suppress a fever by taking Tylenol or ibuprofen. The fact that an individual lacks a fever does not mean that that individual is COVID-negative.

At the same, many individuals run a fever because of conditions that have nothing to do with COVID and are not contagious such as cancer, urinary-tract infections, or simply stress. When temperature screens are used to determine who can return to work or enter a store or a dentist’s office, healthy – or at least non-contagious – individuals will be excluded from participation in society.

Technology Assisted Contact Tracing Apps

Technology assisted contact tracing apps, broadly, fall into two categories: those that rely on cell phone location information, and Bluetooth proximity tracing. The former is both extremely invasive, because where you go says a lot about who you are, and likely to be ineffective for contact tracing, because the location information cell phones generate is not precise enough to determine whether two individuals are sufficiently close to risk exposure. The same is true of the location information advertisers and data brokers have been volunteering to national, state, and local governments since the pandemic began.

By contrast, Bluetooth proximity tracing, if done right, can be achieved without revealing location information, associations, or even the identities of the individuals involved. (For a deep dive on Bluetooth proximity tracing, check out this whitepaper.)

At the same time, even Bluetooth proximity tracing cannot determine whether two individuals within six feet of each other were, in fact, separated by a wall nor, of course, can any technology capture when COVID might move from one individual to another by temporarily resting on surfaces that are handled by multiple people.

Who is being left out?

Many of the people in communities that are most vulnerable to coronavirus are among the least likely to have a smartphone capable of running a contact tracing app. For example, over 40 percent of those over 65 do not own a smartphone, yet the 65-and-over population accounts for more than 75 percent of COVID-related deaths.

Nearly 30 percent of those who earn less than $30,000 annually lack a smartphone; these individuals are also more likely to be frontline workers who must endure increased COVID exposure simply to make a living. Similarly, people with disabilities are 20 percent less likely to own a smartphone than the general population. Although these individuals are not more likely than others to contract the coronavirus, because of their underlying health conditions, the virus may be more dangerous for them.

Even those who do own a smartphone may not have the know how to use a contact tracing app.

Armed with this knowledge, some countries supplement contact tracing apps with credit card transaction histories and closed-circuit video footage. But credit card transaction records will not reach those who pay cash or the unbanked, who are disproportionately poorer and people of color.

The idea of running video footage through facial recognition software to identify individuals is particularly pernicious; such systems are notoriously bad at recognizing women and Black people at a time when Black people are among those disproportionately likely to suffer from COVID-19.

Between the technological flaws and the people who will be left behind by tech solutions, there is a substantial risk that relying too much on technology could lull individuals into a false sense of security and undercut more effective COVID-prevention measures. For these reasons, it is imperative that any technological intervention be coupled with well-designed analog measures, such as traditional contact tracing, robust access to testing and treatment, support for those who need to isolate at home, the availability of PPE, and social distancing.

Who is being harmed?

Even when traditional contact tracing techniques are used, there are myriad individuals – such as undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ youth who come from unsafe homes, people who live in apartments with more people than they have on the lease, survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence – who could be at risk if their location, associations, or health status is released.

Without proper safeguards, such as those that accompany many Bluetooth proximity tracing apps, the introduction of contact tracing technologies and surveillance technologies simply ups the ante by permitting more of this information to be collected and pooled more rapidly, creating treasure troves for data thieves and law or immigration enforcement.

Other technologies are equally pernicious. For example, imprecise technologies too often become excuses for racial profiling: when risk-detection systems produce ambiguous or unreliable results, their operators fill the vacuum with their own judgments.

There is reason to believe devices like standoff temperature scanners will produce similar biases and misuse. And, just last week, the world learned that an all-too-predictable facial recognition mismatch led to the false arrest of a Black man, turning his life and his family’s lives upside down.

Given the profound risks of harm here, it is imperative that participation in any technology-assisted COVID mitigation be voluntary, which means that important public benefits, like food stamps or housing assistance, must not be conditioned on the adoption of any particular surveillance tech nor should such tech be a condition of employment or access to public transportation or other essential services.

If temperature scanners are to be used at the gateways to businesses, doctor’s offices, or public transportation, they must be the more accurate one-to-one, properly operated, clinical grade type, and anyone who is turned away must be provided with an alternate means to access the service.

This is important, because individuals are in the best position to judge their own circumstances and safety needs. Moreover, public health experts frequently find that coercive health measures backfire, because a distrustful public is likely to resist participation.

What legal and technological safeguards are there to mitigate harm?

Perhaps the most important way to build public trust and encourage individuals to voluntarily participate in contact tracing is to build in the appropriate legal and technical safeguards.

Unfortunately, the law in this area still comes up short. We have no nationwide law governing privacy in the digital age that might regulate some of these technologies. In my home state of New York, our Governor has been insisting that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) covers contact tracing information.

But it is not clear that HIPAA applies to traditional contact tracers, and it is pretty clear that it does not apply to many of the technological COVID interventions. Moreover, the law contains numerous exceptions that permit law enforcement to access a person’s HIPAA-covered information without their consent.

To fill this gap – at least for contact tracing information (the analog kind and the technological kind) – here in New York, a broad coalition that includes public defenders, health care providers, and civil rights, privacy, health care, and immigration advocates is working to pass contact tracing confidentiality legislation. The bill ensures that contact tracing information will be kept confidential, will only be used for contact tracing purposes, and will be deleted once its purpose has been served.

Importantly, the bill permits the use of aggregate, de-identified information to track the spread of the virus and to identify disparities among New York communities.

And, most crucially, it prevents law enforcement and immigration enforcement from acting as contact tracers or accessing contact tracing information. It also makes clear that a person’s contact tracing information cannot be used against them in a court or administrative proceeding.

Law and immigration enforcement access was an obvious place to start building in privacy protections. These authorities have, time and time again, given New Yorkers, particularly Black and Brown communities – the very communities hardest hit by COVID-19reason for distrust. One need only look at the brutal law enforcement reaction to the ongoing protests to understand why. If individuals have any reason to believe that sharing these details of their lives will expose them or their loved ones to criminalization or deportation, they simply will not participate.

The risks associated with law enforcement participation in contact tracing are not conjecture. In response to the recent protests in Minnesota, law enforcement there began using contact tracing techniques to track protesters – and public health officials immediately lamented that the police’s activities hampered their efforts to build trust and participation in contact tracing.

Here in New York State, sheriffs’ departments have been deputized as contact tracers in Nassau County and Erie County. And, in New York City, when the contact tracing program had identified 5,000 cases, 85 percent had a phone number, and contact tracers reached 94 percent of those individuals, but only 1,800 shared contacts, underscoring the distrust New Yorkers feel about contact tracing.

The contact tracing confidentiality legislation is a start to building in the legal safeguards that must undergird any technology-assisted coronavirus intervention. There is certainly space for additional legislation, and app and device developers also have a role to play: they should be building robust privacy protections into both their products and their terms of service.

And, of course, any technological interventions must be term limited to the current pandemic. Already, some participants in the industry are endeavoring to entrench the technologies for all time. As one manufacturer wrote, “Just like 9/11 and how it impacted and changed air travel forever, this too will change the way we live and work for a long time to come.”

If that sounds Orwellian, it should. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, a network of thermal cameras that were deployed during COVID-19 repurposed to conduct suspicion-less thermal body searches – perhaps to identify those suspected of drug use.

Finally, members of the most impacted communities must be involved in contact tracing, as well as in developing the technologies that will be used to mitigate COVID-19. These individuals are more likely to understand and serve their communities’ needs.

Just as community members have been more effective at convincing their neighbors to wear masks and adhere to social distancing, community members are more likely than outsiders to convince their neighbors to identify their contacts, to get tested, to self-quarantine when necessary, and to adopt new COVID-era tech when appropriate.


We all want to safely re-open our communities. As we contemplate which technologies to employ to help us do that, we must remember that many of these technologies offer a devil’s bargain: the illusion of safety in return for the intimate details of your life – your health status, your associations, and your location and movements.

We should be careful about which technologies we choose to adopt, and we must put in place appropriate privacy protections to build community trust and ensure safety.

These protections are not just privacy and civil rights necessities; they are public health imperatives.

Allie Bohm is a policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, focusing on legislative and government affairs. She has deep expertise on women’s rights and privacy and technology. She also advocates on the full range of the NYCLU’s issues.

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8 days ago
"some surveillance tech is simply public health theater that offers a false sense of security and provides no actual protection from the coronavirus"
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Microsoft is using ransomware-like tactics to force-feed its new Chromium Edge browser to users through an automatic Windows update (Sean Hollister/The Verge)

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Sean Hollister / The Verge:
Microsoft is using ransomware-like tactics to force-feed its new Chromium Edge browser to users through an automatic Windows update  —  It undermines Microsoft's own argument that automatic updates are critical  —  If I told you that my entire computer screen just got taken over by a new app …

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13 days ago
Microsoft: Please stop messing with us. Patch security flaws, but otherwise Leave Our Machines Alone!
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Happy privacy action day in California: If you don't have 'Do not sell my information' in your website footer, you need to read this story right now

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Golden State AG prepares crackdown

Today is the first day that California will start enforcing its new data privacy law, so if your website doesn’t have a “Do not sell my personal information” link in, say, the footer, you may soon regret it.…

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13 days ago
Is anybody else fed up with the idea that one state, or one country, thinks they can pass a law and have it apply to everyone in the world? I'm a fan of privacy, but I'm angered by the idea that voters in California, or legislators in Europe, think they can tell me what to do.
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BMW wants to sell you subscriptions to your car’s features

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BMW today announced a number of updates to its in-car software experience during a VR press event, complete with a virtual drive through Munich to show off some of these features. These new updates will come to most recent BMWs that support the company’s Operating System 7 later this year — and new cars will already have them built-in.

The company is able to launch these regular updates because it is now able to not just update the car’s infotainment system but virtually every line of code that’s deployed to the various compute systems that make up a modern vehicle. And because of this, the company is now also able to bring a couple of features to market that it has long talked about.

One of those features — and maybe the key announcement from today’s event — are updates to BMW program for subscribing to specific hardware features that are may already be built into your car, like heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems, but that you didn’t activate when you bought the car. BMW has talked about this for a while, but it is now making this a reality. That means if you didn’t buy the heated seats and steering wheel, for example, your new BMW may now offer you a free three-month trial and you can then essentially buy a subscription for this feature for a set amount of time.

Image Credits: BMW

“We offer maximum flexibility and peace of mind to our customers when it comes to choosing and using their optional equipment in their BMWs, whether this BMW is new or used,” a company spokesperson said during today’s press event. “So flexible offers, immediate availability, simpler booking and easy usability for choice, at any time, when it comes to your optional equipment. We already started connectivity over 20 years ago and since 2014, we are online with our Connected Drive Store, where digital services can already be booked.”

Those were very much infotainment features, though. Now, BMW will let you enable vehicle functions and optional equipment on demand and over the air. The company started offering some features like active cruise control with stop and go functionality, a high beam assistant and access to the BMW IconicSounds Sport. The carmaker will add new features to this line-up over time.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier and cheaper for car manufacturers to build some hardware into cars, even if it is not activated, simply because it removes complexity from the production process. A lot of the features that BMW is talking about consist of a combination of software and hardware, though.

What’s new here is the ability to only subscribe to some features for a short time. “In the near future, we will not only be able to add more functions here, but we will also be able to add even more flexibility for our customers with temporary bookings so booking of options for three years, for one year, or even shorter periods of time, like a few months,” a spokesperson said.

Image Credits: BMW

The company also notes that this will give somebody who buys a used car a lot more flexibility, too. It’s worth noting that Apple CarPlay support was also originally a subscription feature in new BMWs, costing $80 a year. The company’s customers were not very happy about this, though, and the company reversed that decision last December. That really felt like nickel-and-diming drivers, though, since none of BMW’s competitors charged for this. It’ll be interesting to see how drivers will react to additional subscription services, but the focus now is more on convenience features that would usually be an option when you buy a new car, so my guess is that this will be less of an issue.

Among the other new and updated digital services the company showcased today is support for Apple’s new ‘Car Keys,’ which BMW brands as the BMW Digital Key, as well as an updated BMW Personal Assistant. Some of these new Assistant features are more cosmetic and about how it is showcased on the in-car display. But one nifty new Assistant feature here, for example, is a kind of IFTTT for your car, where you can easily program it to automatically roll down your windows when you enter your company’s parking garage, for example, so that you can easily scan your badge to open the boom gate.

Image Credits: BMW

Other updates include the new BMW Maps, the company’s built-in GPS system, which the company described as a ‘major leap.’ This cloud-based service can now find routes faster, has more granular traffic data and also includes the ability to find parking spaces for you — and that parking feature itself is based on a lot of work the company is doing in aggregating sensor data from across its fleet, which already covers and maps close to 99% of the German highway system once a day in HD.

Image Credits: BMW

Talking about maps, the company, which is still in the middle of the roll-out of its hybrid-electric vehicles, BMW also today announced that its hybrid fleet will make it easier for drivers to find charging stations and will automatically switch to electric driving when they enter low-emission zones in 80 European cities, with support for additional cities coming over time.

“Digital technologies belong to the core of BMW – because hardware and software are of
equal importance for premium cars,” said Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our mission is to integrate advanced digital technologies with highest product excellence to enhance our customers’ experience and driving pleasure even more.”


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14 days ago
Un-effing believable! This is going too far with subscriptions. Whatever happened to actually 'owning' things that you buy?
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