It’s Not Just Your Car, It’s Your Freedom!

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Cars have always represented freedom in the American zeitgeist. Freedom to go where we want, when we want, unfettered and free. At least according to car commercials.

Well, not anymore.

Now, it’s not just your car, it’s your tracking device, thanks to Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs).

The ACLU has obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act revealing a massive national license plate reader program run by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Although details are thin, the ACLU says the program was initiated in 2008, and syncs with license plate programs of other law enforcement agencies around the country. And it is big, and has the “potential to track our movements around the country,” even if you aren’t a drug dealer.

The ACLU’s Bennett Stein writes that many of the liberated documents are undated, so precise details are hard to come by.

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 continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives (particularly if combined with other data about individuals collected by the government, such as the DEA’s recently revealed bulk phone records program, or cell phone information gleaned from U.S. Marshals Service’s cell site simulator-equipped aircraft ). 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.

Stein notes that the DEA program, called the National License Plate Recognition Initiative, sucks up data from “both DEA-owned automatic license plate readers and other readers.” Creating a “massive” database.  Here are the major points Stein culls from the documents:

  • At the time of an undated slideshow, the DEA had deployed at least 100 license plate readers across the United States (eight states are identified: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New Jersey). A 2010 document also explains that the DEA had by then set up 41 plate reader monitoring stations throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California.
  • The DEA is also inviting federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies around the country to contribute location information to the database. For example, the documents show that local and regional law enforcement systems in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey all provide data to the DEA. The program was “officially opened” to these partners in May 2009. Other agencies are surely partnering with the DEA to share information, but these agreements are still secret, leaving the public unable to know who has their location information and how it is being used.
  • Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is one of the federal agencies that has shared information with the DEA. An undated Memorandum of Understanding explains that the agencies will, “at regular intervals,” provide each other license plate reader data. It also authorizes the two agencies to further share each other’s data with other federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutors as well as to “intelligence, operations, and fusion centers.” This is a lot of location points. CBP collects “nearly 100 percent of land border traffic,” which amounts to over 793.5 million license plates between May 2009 and May 2013, according to CBP’sresponse to our FOIA request.
  • Additionally, any federal, state, or local law enforcement agent vetted by the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center can conduct queries of the database, located in Merrifield, Va.
  • The same undated slideshow suggests that there were over 343 million records in the database at the date of the slide’s publication (due to redactions, it is impossible to confirm that date from this document).
  • The unredacted parts of the documents and news reports suggest that the DEArecently changed its retention policy to six months for non-hit data. While this is an improvement from previous statements of DEA retention policy, it is still far too long. The government should not collect or retain information revealing the movements of millions of people accused of no crime. But even that long retention period is only meaningful if it comes with strict rules limiting data use, sharing, and access. Like its retention policy, the DEA should make these policies public.
  • The DEA says that the National License Plate Recognition Initiative targets roadways that the agency believes are commonly used for contraband transport. But it’s not clear what this means or what it is based on. Every highway in the United States must be regularly used for contraband transport. Is the DEA using this undefined mandate to target people of color? Without more information from the DEA, we have no idea.
  • One DEA document references steps needed to ensure the program meets its goals, “of which asset forfeiture is primary.” Asset forfeiture has been in the news a lot lately, criticized as a widely abused law enforcement tactic that doesn’t advance public safety but simply enriches police and federal agencies.
  • The program also apparently data mines license plate reader data “to identify travel patterns.” The extent of this data mining is unknown. Is the DEA running all of our license plate reads through a program to predict our likelihood of committing a crime? Are we all suspects if we drive on a certain road? What else does the DEA think it knows about us just from the collection and analysis of our locations via license plate reader data?

The liberated documents raise many questions involving the scope of the program, what agencies does DEA partner with, and how is the privacy of Americans being safeguarded? Stein notes:

As is the case with most police and federal law enforcement spy technologies, license plate tracking programs have flown under the radar of courts and legislators for far too long, silently collecting records about ordinary Americans in the cover of secrecy. When programs are secret, we have no way of challenging them or ensuring they conform with our values and the law.

Further Reading: the Brennan Center’s Rachel Levinson-Waldman asks five important questions about this surveillance program here.



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