The Drug Enforcement Administration was monitoring license plates on a “massive” scale, giving rise to “major civil liberties concerns”, the American Civil Liberties Union said on Monday night, citing DEA documents obtained under freedom of information.
“This story highlights yet another way government security agencies are seeking to quietly amplify their powers using new technologies,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with ACLU, told the Guardian.
“On this as on so many surveillance issues, we can take action, put in place some common sense limits or sit back and let our society be transformed into a place we won’t recognize – or probably much like.”
The advocacy group said the DEA records it obtained from the justice department were heavily redacted and incomplete.
“These records do, however, offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that.”
If license plate readers continued to proliferate without restriction and the DEA held license plate reader data for extended periods the agency would soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of people’s lives, the ACLU said, especially if combined with other surveillance data such as bulk phone records or information gleaned by the US Marshals Service using aircraft that mimic cellphone towers.
“Data-mining the information, an unproven law enforcement technique that the DEA has begun to use here, only exacerbates these concerns, potentially tagging people as criminals without due process,” the ACLU warned.
The Wall Street Journal, citing official documents and anonymous officials, reported that the programme built a national database to track vehicles in real time and stored hundreds of millions of records about motorists.
The primary goal was to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking but the database expanded to monitor vehicles associated with other potential crimes, it said.
Officials have publicly acknowledged they track vehicles near the Mexican border to combat drug trafficking.
But the database’s expansion “thoughout the United States”, as one DEA email put it, worried Senator Patrick Leahy, who sits on the Senate judiciary committee.
“The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government’s asset forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern,’’ he told the Wall Street Journal.
Leahy called for additional accountability and said Americans should not have to fear that “their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database”.
A spokesman for the justice department, which includes the DEA, said the program complied with federal law. “It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking intensity,’’ the spokesman said.
According to the ACLU, the government-run national license plate tracking program dates from 2008. Information had trickled out over the years but far too little was known about the program, the ACLU said.