Protecting your private data in 2019 is a struggle, to say the least. Even something as innocuous as an app that makes your face look old might secretly store all of your photos and create a database of faces in a Russian basement somewhere. It’s next to impossible to track who’s gotten hold of your data at any given moment.
But New Times is here to help. For years, we’ve been keeping track of the various ways in which police forces and other government agencies suck up your photos, identifying characteristics, biometric data, and all sorts of other pieces of information about you. So, as surveillance scandals continue to break around the world (companies getting hacked, etc.), here’s a handy list of the places in Miami-Dade County where you’re likeliest to get tracked.
For the past several years, Miami Beach Police have been using automatic license-plate readers to scan each and every car traveling to the city over Memorial Day weekend — an effort known to cause bumper-to-bumper traffic on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle Causeways. While critics say the technology is unnecessary at best and an invasion of privacy at worst, police have argued the license-plate readers help catch wanted criminals and track down stolen vehicles.
This year’s numbers from the holiday weekend, however, show the vast majority of drivers were just regular, law-abiding citizens. This morning, MBPD released Memorial Day license-plate reader statistics — and despite the dragnet approach, police made only a handful of arrests.
Over the four days from Friday to Monday, Miami Beach cops scanned more than 36,000 license plates but issued just 303 criminal tickets. And the number of arrests was even smaller: Police made 13 for felonies and 11 for misdemeanors.
In the meantime, drivers sat in traffic on the two main causeways into South Beach so police could methodically scan their license plates. On the MacArthur, which has been under construction for about a year, the license-plate readers forced all eastbound cars into just one lane.
The city has even been using a surveillance blimp at some big events.
In the seven years since Coral Gables began installing automatic license-plate readers, resident Raul Mas Canosa estimates the city has captured images of his car “thousands of times.” It’s a reasonable guess: By the end of the year, the City Beautiful is on track to scan more than 30 million license plates despite having a population of only 50,000.
In a new lawsuit, Mas Canosa — the youngest brother of Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa — claims those photos are a massive invasion of his privacy. On October 5, he filed a complaint against the City of Coral Gables, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Florida Department of State in which he calls the license-plate readers unconstitutional.
“Where your car moves in space over time is very invasive, and the license-plate readers that are set up by Coral Gables are essentially like the police are following you around 24 hours a day, anywhere your car goes,” says Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing Mas Canosa.
Coral Gables City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos told New Times the city was served with the lawsuit Friday but declined to comment further.
The case appears to be the first in Florida targeting the use of automatic license-plate readers. State legislators passed rules about the new technology in 2014, after which the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined that license-plate data could be stored for up to three years. Mas Canosa’s lawsuit takes issue with the fact that FDLE did not create formal rules for municipalities, only a document outlining “best practices.”
With new advances in technology, Kruckenberg says, it’s now entirely possible — and legal — for Florida governments to track drivers anywhere they’ve been for up to three years.
“It’s church, it’s the doctor, it’s how often you go to the liquor store, anything that you might think is private, and suddenly the police can just pull it up whenever they want to,” the attorney says.
Over the past handful of years, Miami Beach officials have pushed plans to blanket South Beach — South Florida’s top tourist destination — with a gigantic array of security cameras and police-monitored license-plate readers. Civil liberty advocates have repeatedly warned that the city appears to be creating a gigantic and potentially unnecessary surveillance network that could infringe on people’s basic right to move around without being tracked at all times.
Now Wynwood, the Magic City’s second largest tourist epicenter, appears to be following suit. According to Miami City Commission documents, the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) — a group of local officials who approve neighborhood changes — plans to donate $181,034.37 to the Miami Police Department. If the city signs off on the deal, MPD will use that money to buy 48 new surveillance cameras and two new license plate readers to track drivers who pass through the area.
“The acceptance of this donation will be beneficial… to curtail or prevent crime in the Wynwood Business Improvement District, such as robberies, assaults, burglaries and other related offenses, which will increase public safety and the quality of life for the residents, businesses, and visitors of the City of Miami,” the documents state. The commission will consider the proposal at its next meeting on July 11.
The Wynwood BID oversees an arts district that is roughly 50 blocks in size, which means if the plan is approved, the police department will be placing an average of one security camera on nearly every block in Wynwood.
Few American airports shuttle more travelers out of the country than Miami International. But many travelers who’ve flown internationally from MIA since October have been stopped by agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and guided to a small kiosk with a camera inside that resembles an iPhone the size of a shoebox.
The tiny boxes take facial scans of thousands of travelers departing from nine airports — in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City, Houston, D.C., and Miami. Homeland Security rolled out the so-called biometric exit technology at MIA in October, but a group of Georgetown University legal advocates released a report just before Christmas detailing the many terrifying and unanswered questions about the new data-collection program. They demanded the federal government stop needlessly collecting sensitive data on thousands, if not millions, of people exiting the country.
The Georgetown legal experts call the program a “solution in search of a problem” and say that “neither Congress nor DHS has ever justified the need for the program.” Homeland Security claims the cameras could stop impostors from fleeing the country under fake names, but privacy advocates note “neither Congress nor DHS has ever justified the need for the program.”
In fact, the lawyers claim Homeland Security installed the $1 billion national camera system (raised from surcharges on certain visa applications) without following proper federal rules, so the entire program might be illegal.
Last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case about whether cops are allowed to access cell-phone location data without a warrant — the latest in a growing legal battle over the limits of police surveillance using new technology.
Amid that debate, Miami cities have increasingly adopted one piece of tracking tech: Automatic license-plate readers, which log every car cruising on a stretch of road. And no city had been quite as enthusiastic about the readers as Doral — home to a major military command and one of President Donald Trump’s crown-jewel golf courses.
For the past seven years, Doral has been quietly installing a plate surveillance grid across almost the entire city. According to Maggie Santos, a spokesperson for the city, Doral has at least 99 operational plate readers installed around the city, with more on the way. The city has plans for 143 plate readers, and Santos says the city expects to install even more by September 2020.
What exactly is Doral doing with all of that data about everyone driving in the city? That’s the key question police and city officials need to be upfront about to avoid violating the First and Fourth Amendments by stifling free speech or covertly tracking political and religious events.
“That’s something we’ve been very loud about,” says Jackie Azis, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “They need to be open about their use.”
Doral began acquiring readers in 2010 after receiving a $405,000 U.S. Department of Justice C.O.P.S. “Secure Our Schools” grant — which required matching city funds — to install readers around certain schools, according to city documents.
Originally published in the Miami New Times