Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

"This story highlights yet another way government security agencies are seeking to quietly amplify their powers using new technologies," said Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/flickr/cc)

US Engaged in Massive Car Spying Program

Documents obtained by ACLU reveal vast expansion of DEA's license plate reader database 

Andrea Germanos

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.

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.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Wall Street-Funded Democrat PAC to Spend $1 Million in Bid to Unseat Tlaib: Report

"Imagine spending $1 million to oust Rashida Tlaib instead of organizing in Detroit to make sure Michigan goes blue," quipped one progressive group.

Brett Wilkins ·


Parents Demand Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty 'For the Sake of the Children'

"We cannot remain silent as the fossil fuel industry and world leaders rob our children of a livable future," parents from 32 nations wrote in an open letter.

Brett Wilkins ·


'We Can Do Better' Than Biden's Paltry Student Debt Relief Plan, Says AOC

The president's approach, said the New York Democrat, is "just enough to anger the people against it *and* the people who need forgiveness the most."

Julia Conley ·


Right-Wing Supreme Court Poised to Make US Gun Carnage Even Worse

The U.S. Supreme Court's right-wing majority could soon "obliterate even the mildest of gun regulations in service of its gun lobby masters."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Enough Is Enough!': Thousands Protest Outside NRA Convention in Texas

"I'm just tired of the NRA subordinating children's rights for gun rights," said one gun lobby opponent just three days after the school massacre in Uvalde.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo