How the Feds Use Transportation Funds to Spy on You
A recent announcement by a local transit authority in Virginia sheds light on how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are building a massive, intrusive surveillance network built on America's transportation system.
The Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) recently announced plans to install more than 100 live surveillance cameras at stops along a rapid transit line. According to a WTVR report, GRTC plans to install approximately four cameras at 26 Pulse stops along Broad Street. The system will be live 24 hours a day and directly connected to the city's 911 facility.
The ACLU of Virginia opposes the system. The organization's director of strategic communications said constant monitoring changes the nature of a community.
"There's very little evidence that this type of surveillance enhances public safety, and there is every reason to think that it inhibits people. That it causes us to behave differently than we would if we weren't being watched," Bill Farrar said, adding that the system will "keep tabs" on people who rely on public transit.
"GRTC has said in promoting this, in promoting the need for this particular line, we want to help people get out of the East End food desert. So we're saying use this to get the food that you need, but we're going to watch you while you do it.
GRTC Pulse is "a modern, high quality, high capacity rapid transit system serving a 7.6-mile route." It was developed through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the City of Richmond and Henrico County.
According to Style Weekly, "this new system will bring the total number of easily accessible, city or government-owned cameras available to police and other authorities to more than 300, including roughly 200 stationary cameras Richmond police already have easy access to, and 32 cameras owned by city police."
Farrar called the proliferation of cameras in the city "troubling."
"In practice, the use of these systems and the data they collect is almost always expanded, giving law enforcement more information than they need or should have about the personal lives of law-abiding people."
According to WTVR, the federal government required the installation of surveillance cameras along the new transit route as a condition of funding the project.
"Officials said the federal TIGER grant used to fund the half of the project required the installation of the camera system."
This spotlights how the federal government uses funding to incentivize state and local agencies to participate in the expansion of a national surveillance state. Not only do they attach strings to project funding such as this camera requirement in Richmond, they also finance many state and local surveillance programs outright.
State and local agencies have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. The federal government offers grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear. By tapping into federal money, law enforcement agencies can sometimes even keep purchases of surveillance technology “off the books.”
In other words, they can purchase high-tech surveillance equipment without any local government or public oversight. In fact, city councils, county governments and mayors may not even know police have obtained the equipment. This makes it difficult to determine just how expansive the American surveillance state has become.
When reports come out such as the recent revelation of Richmond's transit stop cameras, it cracks open the door and allows us to see just how the feds work with state and local agencies to expand its massive surveillance network.
In this case, it reveals that the federal government is piggybacking onto the transportation system to spy on Americans.
MassPrivatel monitors the expanding surveillance state across the U.S. A recent blog post on its website asserted that the "DHS and the TSA's role in turning public transportation into city-wide police surveillance networks is unmistakable."
Digging into this government scheme to turn the transportation system into a surveillance platform reveals a complicated web of state, local and federal government agencies, along with private organizations, all involved in expanding the surveillance state.
A 2010 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled 'Public Transit Information Sharing' highlights the TSA and DHS's role in creating a giant public transit surveillance network working through various partnerships. The report also reveals information sharing going on between local transit authorities, local law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government, including DHS, has taken a number of actions to enhance the security of transportation systems. These actions include improving information sharing with its critical sector stakeholders, which is highlighted in the 2008 Department of Homeland Security Information Sharing Strategy, as well as the 2009 National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP). To help facilitate information sharing with the public transit industry, DHS and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have created and funded a number of mechanisms, including the Public Transportation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (PT-ISAC), which is administered by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The PT-ISAC was created under the direction of the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2003 and is currently funded by TSA via DOT’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA). In addition to DHS, other federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and FTA, have also taken action to enhance their efforts to share security-related information with public and private stakeholders, including public transit agencies.
The APTA is a nonprofit organization serving as an advocate for the advancement of public transportation programs and initiatives in the U.S. Its website describes it as "the leading force in advancing public transportation." But as the GAO report indicates, it also administers the PT-ISAC - a transportation surveillance program. PT-ISAC collects, stores and disseminates information related to transportation security. It also publishes The Transit And Rail Intelligence Awareness Daily (TRIAD).
"The TRIAD is developed from the numerous sources of intelligence available to the Transportation community today, focusing on counter-terrorism, suspicious activity reports, and general security awareness. The Surface Transportation Security Information Library, available to those vetted to receive the TRIAD, acts as an information repository housing all sources of information provided in the TRIAD as well as other security products, information reviews, and intelligence not provided in the TRIAD. The information will remain available to users as a means for accessing the entirety of intelligence reviewed in the TRIAD and other relevant information, serving as a resource for future research into threats or mitigation techniques."
Where does information filling the Surface Transportation Security Information Library come from? Almost certainly from camera systems and other surveillance technology funded by the federal government, or required by it in transportation grant awards such as the one used to fund Richmond's rapid transit line.
Further digging revealed how this works.
A private company called IIT operates the PT-ISAC for the APTA. The company website confirms the whole system operates as a two-way information highway with surveillance data moving back and forth between state, local and federal agencies.
"The PT-ISAC collects, analyzes, and reports critical cyber and physical security and threat information from innumerable sources to include the U.S. private infrastructures, U.S. intelligence community, U.S, Government, U.S. Military, law enforcement, academia, and the international CERT community on a 24×7 basis. The PT-ISAC provides a secure, two-way reporting and analysis structure that enables the transmission of critical alerts and advisories as well as the collection, analysis and reporting of security information for transit agencies across the nation."
To sum this up, the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA continue to develop a massive, intrusive surveillance network built on America's transportation system. A private, nonprofit organization administers the system and a private company actually runs it.
Meanwhile, federal agencies including the DHS, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice fund the equipment used to collect reams of information on millions of Americans, and also requires participation in the surveillance state as a condition of funding various transportation infrastructure projects.
This demonstrates the federal government's dependence on state and local government actors to run the ever-growing surveillance. It also reveals its Achilles heel. If state and local governments prohibit participation in such schemes, they could effectively pull the plug on these surveillance programs.
There are several steps state and local governments need to take.
- Refuse federal funds that require participation in surveillance programs.
- Prohibit storage and sharing of surveillance data with other agencies without a warrant.
- Institute warrant requirements for surveillance technologies such as stingrays, drones and mobile cameras.
- Require government agencies to get local government approval before acquiring or using surveillance technology.