For who-knows-how-many years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using Automatic License Plate Recognition software to create a national database of the driving habits of ordinary citizens not suspected of a crime, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents describe the state of the surveillance effort as of 2009, leaving us wondering just how vast it could be today.
This vehicle tracking program originated near border crossings in the southwestern United States but has grown into a nation-wide project. It is a joint effort between the DEA and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The surveillance program has been alluded to in Congressional testimony every once in a while through the years, but has yet to be fully understood. The documents released by the ACLU, despite being heavily redacted, shine some much-needed light on the interests and priorities of the DEA and federal law enforcement agencies in general. As of 2009, at least 100 license plate readers had been deployed in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
And we should be concerned. According to the ACLU:
These records . . . 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. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.
In addition to automatically scanning license plates, the program involves photographing “visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle,” according to documents obtained by the ACLU in a separate Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Katz-Lacabe, a curious Californian who filed a public records request for photos of his license plate, discovered that a license plate scanner had taken photographs of him in his driveway with his two daughters, despite never being suspected of a crime. Without a robust and thoroughly-tested conception of what constitutes “suspicious” driving activity, the tracking program and accompanying software run the risk of producing an untold number of false positives. This puts the average innocent citizen at greater risk of scrutiny from federal law enforcement agencies and can potentially lead to deadly SWAT raids.
In Vermont, an expensive ALPR system obtained by law enforcement and routed through their fusion center assisted in solving four or fewer crimes in 2013. In Missouri, Massachusetts, and other states, there are bills before the legislature that would prevent law enforcement from retaining ALPR data or using it retrospectively to fish for embarrassing or incriminating information.
ALPR systems violate the Fourth Amendment, by tracking everybody’s movements over a long period of time without probable cause to suspect involvement in a crime and without a warrant (see US v Jones for an analogous Supreme Court case involving a GPS tracker). They also, and just as deeply, violate the First Amendment. How can we be said to truly have freedom to associate with those we wish to, or to assemble together to “petition for a redress of grievances”, if it is clear to law enforcement exactly where all of us are going and when? Our freedom in this matter, as with much else, rests in being somewhat obscured from law enforcement’s lidless eye. And, glory be to capitalism, the private sector is stepping in with a product that claims to help.
If we are to forgo our Fourth Amendment right to be free of warrantless surveillance and accept data-mining initiatives that often reveal extremely private information, we at least deserve some reassurance that the sacrifice is worth it. It isn’t.
Article by Evan Anderson and Alex Marthews. Cartoon courtesy of the ACLU of Vermont.