Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Government Secretly Tracking Millions of American Drivers

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

The United States government is tracking the movement of millions of American drivers as part of a secret intelligence program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of motorist records.

The license plate tracking program is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with the primary goal of seizing vehicles, cash and other assets belonging to drug trafficking suspects. It was launched in 2008 and was originally limited to border states, where heavy drug trafficking activity occurs.

But the program has since been broadened nationwide and is now tracking vehicles associated with other potential crimes, including murders, rapes and kidnappings, as well as innocent motorists, according to internal emails and other documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via a Freedom of Information Act request.

State and local law enforcement agencies are tapping into the massive government driver database for “a variety of investigations,” the Wall Street Journal reports. This has alarmed civil liberties advocates.

“This story highlights yet another way government security agencies are seeking to quietly amplify their powers using new technologies,” ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley told the Guardian. “On this as on so many surveillance issues, we can take action, put in place some common sense limits or sit back and let our society be transformed into a place we won’t recognize – or probably much like.”

Stanley added:

“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.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said the program “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,” Leahy is quoted by the Wall Street Journal. Leahy asserted the need for “additional accountability’’ and said that Americans should not have to worry whether “their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database.’’

But a Justice Department spokesman insisted the DEA’s actions are perfectly legal.

“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,’’ he said. In 2010, the DEA said it seized 98 kilograms (216 lbs.) of cocaine, 8,336 kg. (18,378 lbs.) of marijuana and more than $866,000 in cash thanks in large part to the database.

One internal email acknowledged that the tracking program’s primary purpose is civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice in which authorities confiscate money and other possessions from motorists they stop. Often, all that is required for law enforcement officers to seize a driver’s money is a suspicion that it is connected to the illicit drug trade.

No criminal charges are necessary for such seizures, and under federal and state laws, authorities may keep most or all seized assets even in the absence of formal charges. Countless innocent Americans have been victimized by what critics call legalized government theft.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced sweeping changes to the much-maligned federal civil asset forfeiture program. Under the new rules, federal authorities will no longer be able to accept assets seized by state and local law enforcement, with the exception of firearms, explosives, ammunition, child pornography or other materials that pose a threat to public safety. But the changes will not affect state and local asset forfeiture programs, or ones run jointly between federal and state agencies.

The ACLU also reported on Tuesday that the DEA planned to monitor gun show attendees, also using license plate tracking technology. An April 2009 DEA email states that the agency’s Phoenix bureau “is working closely with the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the gun shows.”

The DEA responded by saying the monitoring of gun shows was only a proposal and never actually occurred.

The government has previously used automatic license plate readers to target Americans’ constitutionally protected right to freely assemble. In 2009, the Virginia State Police collaborated with the Secret Service to record the license plates on vehicles of people attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration. VSP compiled a massive database containing information that allowed it to know the exact locations of millions of vehicles.

Earlier this month, the DEA admitted it had secretly compiled a massive database containing records of nearly all phone calls between the United States and select foreign countries. The agency said that program had been canceled and “all of the information has been deleted.”

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