The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operates a massive secret government database that tracks the movement of motorists across the country, documents reveal.
The documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act, cast further light on the scope of government surveillance and raise significant privacy concerns, the organization says.
At issue is the DEA's national license plate reader program, which began aimed at vehicles in states along the Mexico border, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday:
The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.
The newly obtained documents reveal the years-long expansion of that initiative, with information being fed to the database by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and other agencies being allowed to query the database, though those inter-agency sharing agreements are secret.
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For example, a sharing agreement exists between the DEA and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the ACLU states, such that the agencies provide each other with their license plate reader data and can also share the other's data with "intelligence, operations, and fusion centers."
One undated document obtained by ACLU showed that there were at least 100 license plate readers across the United States.
The records provided to ACLU by the DEA are "undated or years old," Bennett Stein of ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project and Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst of the project, write. Yet they do "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."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Journal, "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."
ACLU's Stanley told the Guardian, "This story highlights yet another way government security agencies are seeking to quietly amplify their powers using new technologies."
"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," he said.