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DEA Using License Plate Readers To Spy On Drivers

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It can be hard to take a drive these days without getting your image captured. You're probably well aware of speed cameras, traffic cameras, cameras at toll booths. But you might not be aware of the network of license plate readers run by the Drug Enforcement Administration or the massive database of car tracking information they keep. The DEA hasn't provided a ton of detail on the program since it began in 2008. But this week, the ACLU obtained documents that reveal new details about the program. Devlin Barrett covered the story for the Wall Street Journal, where the headline read U.S. spies on millions of drivers.

DEVLIN BARRETT: The DEA is building a national network of license plate scanners. And they're putting them on major highways, and they're scanning the plates. And, in some cases, they're also taking images of the people in the car. Those aren't super high-quality images for the most part, but they can, for example, in many instances, tell, you know, whether a man or woman was driving, what they were wearing and whether they had any passengers in the car.

RATH: Do we know where exactly the readers are?

BARRETT: We know where some of them are. We've long known that there are a lot of readers on the Southwest border. And that's sort of the public face of this program. But they have expanded to states like Florida and Georgia and Nevada. None of those are border states, obviously. And they've also expanded to New Jersey. We know there are readers on the New Jersey Turnpike. And so you're seeing this, you know, general growth of their data collection network.

RATH: Now, before we knew about this, we knew the government and even some companies are tracking license plates in different places around the country. What's newer or different about this program?

BARRETT: We knew these license plate readers are pretty ubiquitous both in local, federal and state law enforcement. What we didn't know was that they were building a national database to track movements of cars throughout the United States. The other piece of this that's interesting is that, in the internal documents that we reviewed, there are repeated references to the primary goal of this program being asset forfeiture.

Now, that's interesting because asset forfeiture is an increasingly controversial law enforcement practice where sometimes they end up taking property, oftentimes money, sometimes vehicles, from people who haven't been charged or convicted of any crime.

RATH: Now, it would seem that we would want the DEA to try to trace drug trafficking. You know, beyond the asset forfeiture, why are the ACLU and others bothered by this program?

BARRETT: Well, I think the civil liberties concerns are a few. One is that this is a database, a national database, that lots of different law enforcement agencies can search. So basically any local and state police agency can search this database if they join - essentially join the network and become a member. And there's not a good understanding of what the limitations are and what the rules are for not just whether or not the DEA is careful about privacy, but whether any of those other agencies that search the system are also careful about privacy. The other big issue that comes into play is what other uses does - are made with that data?

RATH: And do we know how well the DEA has done with this program as intended, either with seizing assets or drug deals intercepted or arrests? Anything like that?

BARRETT: They say it's a very successful program on a number of levels. One, that they make major drug seizures based on the license plates that it finds. Two, that they have connected it to the Amber Alert network, which searches for missing kids. And some of the internal documents reference helping solve murder cases in which they can find not just the victim's vehicle, but the victim in their vehicle at a specific time which, provided in some cases, is a key piece of evidence in solving a murder.

RATH: Devlin, what else don't we know about the extent or pervasiveness of this program?

BARRETT: Well, we don't know a lot about the - for lack of a better word - the rules of the road. We don't know what internal checks there are to make sure this isn't misused, abused or just not run well. And so far the Justice Department won't really spell out what the limits of what they're using it for.

RATH: That's Devlin Barrett. He's a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. Devlin, thanks very much.

BARRETT: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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