Wikileaks’ Hacked Stratfor Emails Shed Light on Feds Using License Plate Readers

A 2009 Stratfor email released on Wikileaks containing notes from a meeting between Mexican and American law enforcement sheds light on the origins of the federal government's national automobile surveillance program.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks during a press conference in central London on February 27, 2012. Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks on February 27 began publishing more than five million confidential emails from US-based intelligence firm Stratfor, the anti-secrecy group said. AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)
Julian Assange speaking at a press conference in 2012, prior to the release of the Global Intelligence Files. (Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal law enforcement began planning to use license plate readers in 2009 to track cars that visited gun shows against cars that crossed the border into Mexico, according to notes from a meeting between United States and Mexican law enforcement, released on Wikileaks. The notes were taken by Marko Papic, then of Stratfor, a company that describes itself as a publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

License plate readers are becoming a standard tool for local and national law enforcement across the country. In 2013, the ACLU showed that state and local law enforcement were widely documenting drivers’ movements. Ars Technica looked at license plate data collected in Oakland. In January, the ACLU described documents attained from the Drug Enforcement Agency under the Freedom of Information Act that showed that agency has been working closely with state and local law enforcement. Many of the findings in these latter documents corroborate some of the insights provided by the 2009 meeting notes on Wikileaks.

Stratfor Global Intelligence CEO George Friedman delivers a speech during a conference in the framework of the "Mexico Business Summit" in Queretaro, Mexico, on November 12, 2012. The meeting will last until November 13. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Stratfor Global Intelligence CEO George Friedman, speaking in Mexico in 2012. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Wikileaks began publishing these emails in February 2012, as the “Global Intelligence Files,” as the Observer previously reported. The documents have to be read with some caution. These were reportedly attained by hackers in December 2011. A Stratfor spokesperson declined to comment on the leaked emails, referring the Observer instead to its 2012 statement, which says, “Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic. We will not validate either.”

While it’s hard to imagine that such a giant trove could be completely fabricated, there is also no way to know whether or not some of it was tampered with. That said, details about federal license plate reader programs largely square with subsequent findings about the surveillance systems.

The meeting appears to have been primarily concerned with arms control, but related matters, such as illegal drug traffic and the Zetas, come up as well. The focus of the meeting appears to be information sharing among the various authorities, from both countries. Among other initiatives, the notes describe the origins of a sophisticated national system of automobile surveillance.

Here are some findings on law enforcement technology, with an emphasis on tracking automobiles:

  • The program wasn’t fully live in 2009. The notes read, “Mr. 147 asked about the License Plate Reader program and Mr. 983 from DEA responded that they were still in the testing phase but that once completed the database would be available for use by everyone.” However, an email found by the ACLU from 2010 said that the DEA was sharing information with local law enforcement as of May 2009. (People at the meeting are largely referred to by numbers throughout the notes)
  • Gun shows. The officials in the meeting suspect that a lot of guns that reach Mexico come from American gun shows. The Ambassador from Mexico is cited as believing that shows were the main source of firearms coming into his country. The ATF then says that investigating gun shows is “touchy.”
  • Cross-referencing. Despite the sensitivity, the ATF hoped to be able to identify vehicles that visited gun shows and then crossed the border. The notes read, “[Mr. 192] noted that they would do the check once they came into Mexico. Mr. 009 stated part of the new ways that are being looked at is incorporating that type of information into license plate readers for local law enforcement. He added that DEA is going to provide more and more license plate readers especially southbound.” This last point squares with ACLU’s finding, which found a 2010 document that said the DEA had 41 readers set up in southern border states.
  • ATF and the NRA. Apparently law enforcement checks in with the gun rights advocates. Mr. 123 is identified as an ATF employee in the hacked email. In a conversation about the federal government’s gun tracking system, eTrace, the notes attribute to him the following, “He added that they are in constant communication with Mr. Templeton who has the Cross Roads of the West Gun Show as well as NRA attorneys and that there had been no complaints on how things were moving.” Bob Templeton is shown as the President of the National Association of Arms Shows on this op-ed and runs the gun show mentioned, according to its site.
  • Other data. The notes also indicate that the ATF was working on ways to identify people who bought more guns at gun shows than their income should allow. It also indicated that the United States’ gun tracking system was being translated into Spanish, so that Mexican authorities could check guns against American records.

The notes themselves are not dated, but the email containing them is dated September 4, 2009. It provides no names, but it cites people from the Mexican Embassy, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firerearms, DEA, Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and others. The only person named is Marko Papic, who identifies himself in this hacked email. Stephen Meiners circulated Mr. Papic’s notes from the summit’s morning and afternoon session in one email.

The Supreme Court of California is set to review police’s exemption to sharing information on how they use license plate reader data in that state. A court in Fairfax County, Virginia, is set to consider a suit against police there over local law enforcement keeping and sharing of data about people not suspected of a crime.

The DEA and the ATF did not reply to a request for comment for this story.

Wikileaks’ Hacked Stratfor Emails Shed Light on Feds Using License Plate Readers