WASHINGTON (Oct. 8, 2018) – The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) plans to expand a surveillance program that tracks the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.
According to federal contracting data, the DEA will expand the footprint of its license plate tracking program with automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) connected to trailer-mounted speed displays. According to the contract announcement, the DEA will make a sole source award to RU2 Systems Inc.
“RU2 Systems Radar Speed Display Trailers, are retrofitted as mobile LPR platforms. These platforms are in high demand by DEA division offices across the country, and will be utilized on a continuous basis for constant and targeted LPR acquisition efforts in rural and difficult to cover areas where LPR fixed or other mobile applications are not effective or available.”
In practice, this means those “check your speed” digital displays police set up along the highway may well record your license plate, location and time.
The DEA launched its license plate tracking program in 2008. It didn’t become public knowledge until 2012 when an agent revealed the existence of the program during a congressional hearing. It wasn’t widely reported on until 2015. As reported in the Wall Street Journal that year, the DEA tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
The speed-sign-mounted ALPRs represent a significant expansion of the program. In the past, the agency has primarily relied on state and local law enforcement agencies to provide the data for this program. The DEA’s fiscal year 2019 budget confirms this, describing the program as “a federation of independent federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement license plate readers linked into a cooperative system, designed to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to interdict drug traffickers, money launderers or other criminal activities on high drug and money trafficking corridors and other public roadways throughout the U.S.”
As the Quartz report put it, ALPRs cast “an astonishingly wide net.” Law enforcement agencies configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. The technology can capture up to 2,000 license plates per minute. And according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU:
“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) investigative researcher Dave Maass called ALPRs “inherently a form of mass surveillance.”
“You look at something like a wiretap and most of the time it’s looking for a specific person and capturing specific conversations with that person. But here they are collecting information on everybody, not all of whom have been accused of a crime, in case they may one day commit a crime. This is un-American.”
Maass went on to explain just how much information authorities can glean based on location data.
“The technology is fairly simple, but as they start collecting more and more data and applying more and more algorithms to that, you can get information about people’s travel patterns, where their doctor’s office is, where they sleep at night, or put in the address of a place and see who visited it: an immigrant health clinic, a medical marijuana facility, or even a [marijuana] grow [operation] that would be completely legal under state law but illegal under federal law,” Maass said. “You could [link someone to] an abortion clinic, any number of sensitive locations.”
Under the Constitution, the DEA shouldn’t even exist. The Constitution delegates no power to the federal government to police drugs. Furthermore, this type of invasive dragnet surveillance clearly violates the Fourth Amendment.
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