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Tag, you're tracked: D.C. spurs civil liberties fears with vague anti-carjacking program

Mayor asks everyone to put tracking tags in their cars despite stalking warnings. ACLU D.C. wants answers to storage, usage questions. Police chief says D.C. consulted with Denver, which requires participants to "preauthorize" access.

Published: November 3, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: November 4, 2023 1:14pm

The Mexican consulate embarrassed the District of Columbia this summer by warning its nationals that crime was spiking in the nation's capital. Now Washington may be overcompensating.

The would-be state that forces registered vehicles to promote its politics wants residents to install tracking devices to deter carjackings, aid recovery of stolen vehicles and prosecute thieves – and it will even pay for them in some high-crime neighborhoods.

The Metropolitan Police Department is joining peers nationwide with anti-carjacking programs that rely on Tile devices, Apple's AirTags, built-in tracking systems such as OnStar and aftermarket GPS or Bluetooth trackers.

Eligibility for free Tiles and AirTags is limited to D.C. residents who prove with ID they live in one of six "police service areas" with the greatest increases in vehicle theft. They must attend one of three installation events next week to participate.

What's missing from Wednesday's press release about the program, and what concerns civil liberties groups: how the collected tracking data are stored and used beyond recovering stolen cars at the request of their owners.

"People have every right to opt into" the D.C. program, "but they should be fully informed, and that means asking questions about the exact terms that apply," such as Apple and Tile policies for "release of user data to law enforcement," Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesperson Josh Richman told Just the News.

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser's program "leaves critical questions about our safety and privacy unanswered,"  ACLU D.C. Policy Director Damon King wrote in an email. "Where does the information from tracking tags go? Who stores it? Who uses it? For what purposes?"

He further wonders whether tag users are "essentially handing over all the information about where and when they drive" to MPD. "Why should we trust MPD with wielding the incredible spying capabilities that this technology brings?"

D.C. and its Prince George's County suburbs to the east already handed out free steering wheel locks in February to owners of easy-to-steal Hyundai and Kia vehicles, and this summer D.C. offered an "anti-theft clinic" with software updates for those vulnerable vehicles.

The city is also "carpeted" with automatic license plate readers, Electronic Privacy Information Center attorney Jake Wiener said.

"The odds that any of those [trackers] are going to get used to solve a crime are remarkably low" because they aren't widely deployed in pilot programs, he also said.

Wiener noted that police have warned the devices are used in stalking.

Apple said in February 2022 that it was "actively working with law enforcement" to combat "incidents of AirTag misuse." The company rolled out firmware updates nearly a year ago to combat AirTag stalking.

"With a serial number, Apple may be able to provide the paired account details in response to a subpoena or greater legal process," Apple's law enforcement guidelines say. "AirTag pairing history is available for a period up to 25 days."

Apple spokesperson Alex Kirschner emphasized it cannot share data from AirTags with law enforcement because of their design.

"Your location data and history are never stored on the AirTag itself," devices that "relay the location" remain anonymous, and the data are "encrypted every step of the way," its AirTag page says.

Tile maker Life360 also pointed Just the News to its law enforcement guidelines. "Raw location data" from Tiles is "retained for approximately 30 days. With the exception of the last place a Tile was recorded [sic]," it says.

"The driving or location data would not be owned or viewable by the DC police department just because they are distributing Tiles," spokesperson Kristi Collura wrote in an email.

"Absent exigent circumstances or other lawful exceptions," the guidelines delineate how Life360 will respond to subpoenas, court and Section 2703(d) orders and search warrants.

"All legal process" for Tiles "must identify" email address, TileID, serial number, "links packaging to Tile device" or "'Scan if Found' Data Matrix" to identify the user, as well as the date range sought, legal basis and how and to whom data should be furnished.

D.C. Mayor Bowser and acting Chief of Police Pamela Smith appeared to leave more questions than answers at a Wednesday press conference. Neither Bowser's office nor MPD responded to queries.

With carjackings up 36% this year, MPD got the idea for the program from a "trend" this summer of vehicle recoveries aided by trackers that owners had installed, Smith said without providing numbers. She declined to say how many tags were available for distribution.

Bowser said the tracking devices cost about $30 each. She encouraged "all Washingtonians" to consider buying and installing the devices in their cars and registering them with police. 

"A single arrest can help bring closure to multiple cases" because carjackers tend to be repeat offenders, Smith said, noting she uses an AirTag in her personal vehicle. She said D.C. consulted with the Denver Police Department while designing the pilot.

The Mile High City's eight-month-old DenverTrack goes much further.

It requires owners to "preauthorize" access to the manufacturer's GPS service to DPD, which claims it won't track cars until the owner calls to report the vehicle stolen and proves ownership. Participants must email the program to opt out of tracking, followed by phone verification.

"These kind of centralized surveillance programs are difficult to meaningfully oversee and audit, leading to cultures of wrongful surveillance and abuse," EPIC's Wiener wrote in an email, referring to DenverTrack. "Often the evidence specialized surveillance units produce is not disclosed to defense attorneys either, meaning that wrongful arrests are more difficult to remedy."

Taxpayer funds are better spent "addressing the root causes of poverty and effective crime prevention, like walkable, well-lit streets," Wiener said.

An unnamed DPD public information officer acknowledged but did not answer Just the News questions about the program's results, safeguards and user agreement language.

New York City officials said this spring they were distributing 500 AirTags to combat carjackings and encouraging vehicle owners to purchase their own.

"Help us help you, get an AirTag," NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey posted on X

Tech news site Gizmodo questioned the assumptions behind NYC's program because of Apple's anti-stalking changes, such as making AirTags chirp after a few hours away from the owner's iPhone, and an Android app that detects "unwanted" AirTags.

In D.C.'s backyard, wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland, launched a similar Tile pilot to select areas with a carjacking spike in spring 2022. MCPD ran out of devices but is offering a waitlist for the next round. 

An MCPD video says users must complete a waiver on its website, but Just the News could not find it and the department didn't respond to queries.

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