The American Civil Liberties Union has revealed the existence of a national program operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration that collects and analyzes license plate information.
According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, the DEA has gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program.
The initiative allows the DEA to connect its Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) and collected data with that of law enforcement agencies around the nation. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers this program only adds to the growing list of data collection by the US government.
ALPR’s are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.
One document shows the DEA has at least 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. Law enforcement in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey are among the agencies providing the DEA with data. The program opened to local and state partners in 2009.
The Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is one of the federal agencies working with the DEA. The documents also reveal the program mining license plate reader data “to identify travel patterns.” The DEA has established 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, 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 new information came as the result of public records requests, and FOIA requests filed by the ACLU in 2012. The ACLU discussed the specific danger of the federal government using such tools.
“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.”
A 2011 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that of the more than 70 police departments surveyed, 70 percent used ALPR technology and 85 percent expected to be using or increasing use of the technology within the next five years. Some believe that by 2016 as much as 25 percent of police vehicles will come equipped with the cameras.
Government agencies are not the only groups interested in this data, however. Recently, it was discovered that repossession, or “Repo” companies were using license plate readers to gather data. Once the companies take possession of a vehicle from delinquent owners the companies use the LPR’s to gather data which can then be sold to the highest bidder.
Jennifer Lynch, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed concern over the database of information being sold to banks, insurance companies and law enforcement agencies. “These private companies have amassed databases of over a billion records,” she said.
In early 2014, the EFF and the ACLU of Southern California filed the opening brief in their lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The lawsuit deals with how the law enforcement agencies are using Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) to gather information. The two watchdog agencies attempted to argue that the two departments are illegally keeping quiet on how the information is used.
Soon after a judge would rule in agreement with with law enforcement, claiming that the data caught by the readers should not be released to the public. The LAPD and LASD argued that 100 percent of the information was part of an investigation and therefore should not be released.
The LAPD and LASD have been called “two of the biggest gatherers of automatic license plate recognition information,” by LA Weekly. The ALPR gather information and officers from the LASD or LAPD can access up to 26 other police agenices in the county as they search for a hit in the system.
I have previously written for BenSwann.com on the danger of ALPR’s and “hot lists”.
“Departments and officers can create lists of “vehicles of interest” and alert other ALPR users when the vehicle is spotted. Officers can search individuals plates numbers in the ALPR system to track during their shift. There seems to be no prerequisite of reasonable suspicion or a warrant needed to be added to such a list. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department manual on the ALPR offers more insight into the program.
As with many emerging technologies the future is still being written and opportunities for corruption and abuse are plenty. In 2009 the BBC reported on the case of John Cat. Catt is a regular attendee of anti-war protests in his home town, Brighton. His vehicle was tagged by police at one of the events and he was added to a “hotlist”. He said later while on a trip to London he was pulled over by anti-terror police. He was threatened with arrest if he did not cooperate and answer the questions of the police.
A recent investigation by Mudrock and the Boston Globe revealed that the Boston Police Department violated its own policies by failing to follow up on leads that were flagged by the ALPR scans. Public records requests by MudRock found that the BPD also collected information on its own officers. The BPD has reportedly stopped responding to email and phone calls seeking documents that they are required to disclose.”
For more information check out the ACLU’s report “You Are Being Tracked: License Plate Readers Explained”