Through the use of license-plate readers, federal authorities have collected and stored at least 343 million records that detail the location of drivers around the country and housed them in a new national database, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Justice Department officials had kept the scope of the program a secret until disclosing it earlier this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU. Previously, they had said license-plate readers were used along the border with Mexico in drug-fighting efforts. The documents revealed a program far more reaching.
While heavily redacted, they showed the Drug Enforcement Administration, which falls within the DOJ bureaucracy, has been running the program, known as the National License Plate Recognition Initiative, since 2008. The program was created to enhance "intelligence and information sharing" and it uses data from both DEA-owned readers as well as those administered by other agencies.
By sifting through this data for habits and patterns of individual motorists, Justice Department officials say they've gained a valuable asset in their fight against illicit drugs. But the license-plate readers capture data on law-abiding drivers, too. Between the NSA collecting phone records and emails of millions of innocent Americans, privacy advocates fear the national license-plate data program amounts to another surveillance tool being used by the government to monitor the activities of ordinary citizens.
It's not known what percentage of the data has been used to catch criminals and what percentage relates to innocent motorists, but previous research from the Electronic Frontier Foundation has estimated that 99.8 percent of license-plate reader data is not used for criminal investigations.
"It's really concerning to us, and it should be for all motorists who are concerned about their privacy rights and the freedom to drive where you want without being tracked the whole way," said John Bowman, executive with the National Motorists Association. "It's a gross intrusion on privacy."
Scope Of National Program Unprecedented
Many county and regional law enforcement agencies across the US have used license-plate readers to scan a large volume of license plates in their crime-fighting efforts; there's already been growing concern on how the information they collect is shared, accessed and stored. But a national repository of these records gives the government a more powerful tool that, over time, can discern where a person goes to church, which doctors they see and what political meetings they attend.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security solicited bids from private companies to build and manage a national database to house license-plate reader records. DHS officials scuttled the project only one day later amid an outcry over privacy concerns. Now, it's apparent such a database was already commissioned and being used by another arm of the government.
Among the revelations detailed by the ACLU:
- The DEA has at least 100 license-plate readers in use, and many are positioned along the country's southwestern border, in states such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida. A 2010 memo details how the agency set up 41 plate-reader monitor stations in California, New Mexico and Texas.
- The DEA shares information with the Customers and Border Patrol agency, and the two agencies share data with other federal, state and local law enforcement, as well as with "fusion centers," where cross-agency information is pooled and shared. The CPB says it has "nearly 100 percent of land border traffic" under collection.
- One of the documents notes one of the primary goals of the National License Plate Recognition Initiative is to promote civil forfeiture, a process in which law-enforcement officials can seize cash, cars and other valuables from motorists suspected of crime.
The problem with asset forfeiture, as noted in several recent reports, is police officers can seize assets from motorists who aren't yet convicted of crimes. In recent years, innocent drivers have been swept up in these programs and have spent years trying to regain their valuables. In many cases, these forfeitures directly fund the police departments seizing the money, and last year, a bipartisan coalition of Congressional leaders proposed legislation that would curtail the practice.
US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) told The Wall Street Journal that the expansive use of license-plate readers "raises significant privacy concerns. 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 Wants Greater Transparency
While the fresh documents reveal the existence of the program and some information about how the data is shared, there are many more questions than answers at this early juncture. For example, ACLU officials say they still don't know the number of license-plate readers, the total number of records in the database or how the records of law-abiding motorists are used. Nor is it known how effective the license-plate readers have been in thwarting the spread of illegal drugs across the country.
"The public deserves a more complete and comprehensive explanation than the smattering of records we have obtained can provide," the ACLU said in a statement.
At least within the DEA, the documents do show that non-criminal records are retained for 60 days before being deleted. But it's not known whether agencies that the DEA has shared data with have similar policies.
"I think it's naïve to assume that, even if someone has a policy where they delete the data within, say, 30 days, chances are that data has already been shared with another agency," Bowman said. "And if you think about it, it's completely unreasonable to store data on my daily travel patterns endlessly. There's no reason to do that, other than if they want to go back and start snooping around. And that's when abuses occur. ... If a person isn't implicated in any crime, you should delete that information as quickly as possible. Within a week or so."
LPRs Aren't Only Surveillance Tool
Of course, license-plate readers are merely one technology of many available for surveillance on vehicles. Cars can be tracked via the turn-by-turn navigation feature embedded in many vehicles. The US Government Accountability Office released a report last year that recommended automakers be more transparent in how this information is used and shared.
Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that all new cars contain black boxes that provide data in 15 separate categories. While that information is stored aboard the car, there are growing concerns that data could be accessed as vehicles move into a future where all cars are connected.
"There is very little oversight to this, very little transparency in the number of license-plate readers, a whole range of things," Bowman said. "Law enforcement officials are very reluctant to provide details on them, and we are trying to put legislation and restrictions in place that provide some accountability and restrictions."