Per documents released in response to a FOIA request, the federal government maintains a large program using automatic license-plate readers to track vehicles in real time (not just in later investigation) and nationwide (not just near borders). The program “collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways.” The resulting photographs are “sometimes” clear enough to identify drivers or passengers. “One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture.” Although the program is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, its data is increasingly shared for investigations unrelated to drugs. [Wall Street Journal]
Forfeiture-driven law enforcement is at this point deeply embedded in our practice at both federal and local levels, and the small and ambiguous federal-level reforms announced by AG Holder earlier this month are unlikely to turn that around in themselves.
Conor Friedersdorf comments: “The DEA will obviously continue to lose the War on Drugs. We’ve traded our freedom to drive around without being tracked for next to nothing. … Unfortunately, leaders in the U.S. law enforcement community feel that they’re justified in secretly adopting sweeping new methods with huge civil liberties implications.” (cross-posted and expanded at Cato at Liberty). A different view: Jazz Shaw, Hot Air (could be useful in “managing crime,” and think of the children: unless we let government monitor our comings and goings, the throwers of little girls into vans will win). And more: They can watch your car, but as Waze flap confirms, don’t you dare watch theirs [Liz Sheld]
Update: new emails reveal plans of even wider scope, including a proposal (which DEA says was not acted on) to cooperate with BATF to track license plates of gun show attendees. The Guardian quotes me about the chilling effect systematic surveillance can have on the exercise of rights, and about the impetus for cooperation between Right and Left on reining in law enforcement use of data tracking. Note pp. 10, 27-28 of this NRA amicus brief in an ACLU mass-surveillance case. And earlier on license plate tracking here (Los Angeles FOIA), here and here (Maryland), and here (Radley Balko). And with the rapid development of onboard computer technology, our cars ourselves could soon be reporting our driving habits to the government. But that’d never happen, right? [Steven Greenhut] “Taxing Us To Spy On Us” [Chris Edwards]