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Emails From License Plate Reader Company Hack Show Lobbyists Writing Legislation And Handing Out Talking Points To Congressional Reps

Published: August 13, 2019
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Lee Fang of The Intercept has dug into the cache of internal license plate reader manufacturer documents dumped on the web earlier this year. In addition to hundreds of images of drivers and their vehicles passing through border checkpoints, the files also contained emails from Perceptics (the LPR manufacturer targeted by hackers) to Congressional reps, reminding them to hit their marks at the next Congressional hearing.

In April 2018, during an appropriations committee hearing, the Tennessee Republican took a more subdued and technical approach to immigration issues when quizzing then-Customs and Border Protection chief Kevin McAleenan. [Rep. Chuck] Fleischmann, looking down to read from a paper in front of him, wanted to know if McAleenan was on schedule to implement an upgrade of license plate reader technology at the border, as mandated by a previous appropriations bill.

McAleenan thanked the committee for its support and pledged continued work to upgrade LPR technology along the border.

A few days after the exchange, a lobbyist representing Perceptics, a tech company that sold state-of-the-art LPR cameras and technology to the government, emailed her team to confirm that Fleischmann had “asked about CBP’s plan to modernize its LPRs as we asked his office to do,” along with a link to a video clip of the hearing.

There's no element of surprise here. There will be no gasps of disbelief. About the only thing we can do is shake our heads at how willingly our public representatives will follow stage direction from corporations, especially when the talking points are in the interest of subjecting more people -- many of them US citizens -- to more surveillance.

It's amusing when a social media influencer accidentally posts some paid content from a sponsor/advertiser without changing a single word of the sales pitch. It's not nearly as funny when a Congressional rep reads directly from a company's email, demanding to know whether or not the CBP would be spending more LPR money in the near future.

Ultimately, this didn't work out for Perceptics. Not because Congressional reps decided they wouldn't be unofficial spokespeople for a number of corporate interests. The only reason Perceptics was dumped by the CBP was because it couldn't keep its information secure -- information that included its pointed conversations with legislators.

Other emails show Perceptics' lobbying firm, Ferox Strategies, assuring its client that both versions of competing immigration bills contained authorization for $125 million in "LPR modernization funds." The language in both bills appears to have come directly from Perceptics. Neither of these versions survived the 2018 legislative session, but Perceptics continued to press for preferential treatment. The emails say nice things about "open, competitive bid processes" but also make the point that cameras installed by Perceptics nearly a decade ago were in desperate need of updating. Additional emails show Perceptics' lobbyist firm had Texas Rep. John Cornyn on tap for functions, so long as lobbyists were willing to drop a little money in his coffers.

Once again, nothing truly surprising here other than the fact we actually have access to the emails. Of course, this is where the Freedom of Information Act fails to produce accountability. Congressional reps are exempt from the law. But they can't prevent data exfiltration. They can only hope to contain it.

Related Articles:

Just months before millions of its internal documents were stolen and dumped on the internet, the Tennessee-based surveillance company Perceptics was preparing to pitch New York’s transit authority on how it could help enforce impending “congestion pricing” rules, according to leaked documents reviewed by The Intercept. The pitch, as outlined in the files, went well beyond mere toll enforcement and into profiling New Yorkers’ travel patterns and companions, creating what experts describe as major privacy risks.

JUST MONTHS BEFORE millions of its internal documents were stolen and dumped on the internet, the Tennessee-based surveillance company Perceptics was preparing to pitch New York’s transit authority on how it could help enforce impending “congestion pricing” rules, according to leaked documents reviewed by The Intercept. The pitch, as outlined in the files, went well beyond mere toll enforcement and into profiling New Yorkers’ travel patterns and companions, creating what experts describe as major privacy risks.

One of the key fears that critics of mass surveillance and the proliferation of facial recognition technology have warned about has been realized with new reporting Monday that a "malicious cyber attack" has resulted in photos of airport passengers and other personal data harvested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol being stolen by unknown actors.

The breach happened at one of the agency’s subcontractors, officials said. CBP wouldn’t name the subcontractor nor disclose the number of images stolen. Customs and Border Protection officials on Monday said personal information the agency collected on travelers was exposed in “a malicious cyber-attack.”... The New York Times reported somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 images were stolen in the breach. However, the agency declined to comment on how many images were leaked and whether the travelers involved in the breach were U.S. citizens.

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