DEA Creates Massive Database of License Plates

January 29, 2015

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is operating a national program to form a database vehicle license plates coordinated with other law enforcement agencies, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. Although a February 2014 Washington Post article indicated that the Department of Homeland Security’s License Plate Reading Program had been discontinued, this program operates independently.
The ACLU claims that while the DEA responded to the FOIA request, the information they received is incomplete. The organization says that many of the documents are undated or outdated, and that therefore, many aspects of the program remain a mystery.

The ACLU fears a “centralized repository” of information on America’s drivers— “a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.” The ACLU is concerned that this data could “potentially tag[] people as criminals without due process.”

For example, one document the ACLU uncovered indicates that the “DEA has deployed at least 100 license plate readers across the United States . . . [including] California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New Jersey.” Additionally, the ACLU fears that the information the DEA is collecting could be used for discriminatory purposes, as other studies indicate that racial profiling continues to be a “troubling problem.”
The ALCU maintains that Americans need more information to understand the reaches of its program. Some unanswered questions include the amount of money the DEA is spending on this program, where the readers are located, how many of them are, and what policies govern the usage of these devices.
One update indicates that the License Plate Reader system includes, “53 fixed cameras, 24 barrel cameras, and 47 license plate reader trailers. These cameras are distributed in 12 locations in East Texas, 21 location in West Texas and New Mexico, 6 locations in Arizona, and 6 locations in California.” However, the ACLU complains that this 2012 contract for license plate readers might be outdated, and also does not clarify the status of the number of license plate readers in other regions.
The ACLU is not the only party worried about this program. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the government’s 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.’’’
Others have come out in defense of the program. A spokesperson for the DEA maintains that the “program complies with federal law. ‘It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking intensity,’ the spokesman said.” Furthermore, in 2010, DEA documents reported “the database aided in the seizure of 98 kilograms of cocaine, 8,336 kilograms of marijuana and the collection of $866,380.”
Although the Journal reports that the purpose of the program is to “seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking,” the controversy indicates the ongoing tensions between security and privacy, and the questionable limits of government surveillance.