Pubdate: Wed, 28 Jan 2015
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2015 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Pete Carey

Highway Surveillance


FOIA Documents Reveal License Plate Readers Capturing Americans' Travel

In a little-known surveillance effort, the Drug Enforcement 
Administration is operating a massive national license plate reader 
program and has collected hundreds of millions of records of drivers 
on U.S. highways, according to the ACLU.

Documents released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union 
describe a burgeoning DEA effort, begun in 2008, to take digital 
snapshots of automobiles, their occupants and their license plates as 
they pass by high-tech cameras in at least eight states, including 
California, to catch criminals smuggling money and contraband into Mexico.

The program "raises significant privacy concerns," Sen. Patrick 
Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The 
Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the ACLU's documents. He 
said Americans should not have to fear "their locations and movements 
are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database."

The new disclosure of widespread government surveillance comes on the 
heels of revelations about the National Security Agency's wholesale 
collection of phone and email records of U.S. citizens, as well as 
mounting concerns over surveillance of ordinary citizens by law 
enforcement agencies.

"It's not the kind of information government should be compiling," 
said Jay Stanley, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties 
Union in Washington, D.C. "Location data is very powerful information."

The data "can reveal political and sexual associations, what doctors 
you visited, their specialities, whether you are good partner or 
spouse, the state of your health, your interests and associations," he said.

The heavily redacted documents, obtained in response to Freedom of 
Information Act requests, show the DEA program operates on suspected 
contraband trafficking routes in at least eight states -- California, 
Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Florida, Georgia and New Jersey. 
In 2009, the DEA began sharing the information with other federal and 
local law enforcement agencies, the documents indicated.

The Justice Department said the National Plate Reader Initiative is a 
legal law enforcement tool and was described to a Congressional 
subcommittee in 2012.

"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," said Justice Department spokesman Patrick 
Rosenbush. He said it was initiated "in direct response" to the 
smuggling of "illicit monies" out of the country at the U.S.-Mexico 
border. He said the program is "in compliance with federal law" and 
the data is deleted after 90 days.

The documents obtained by the ACLU show that until 2012, the data was 
retained for two years. At that time, the retention time was dropped 
to six months. The program was initially limited to the U.S.-Mexico 
border and operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection but now the 
DEA has its own program.

The primary goal is to assist in asset forfeiture, a controversial 
program in which law enforcement seizes cash, cars and other property 
from suspects. In one document, apparently from 2010, the DEA said 
that the license plate reader system had tracked fugitives, solved a 
gang-related homicide, identified routes and methods used to 
transport drugs and weapons, and assisted in the seizure of shipments 
of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methadone, firearms and currency -- 
$80.6 million in cash in 2010 alone.

The system can recognize up to four plates on the front and back of 
vehicles, and store 10 photos per vehicle including four "occupant 
photos," according to an email contained in the documents.

The DEA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection now share data. 
The CPB, which monitors traffic across the U.S. border, disclosed 793 
million license plate captures between May 2009 to May 2013.

The number of fixed and mobile cameras on trailers in the DEA network 
is not clear. One DEA document describes 94 devices operated by it 
and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Another 
puts the number at 100.

Dave Maass, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San 
Francisco, said a DEA notice to contractors dated June 2012 for 
refueling and maintenance of generators for the license plate readers 
said they were at 45 locations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and 
California. To be serviced and refueled were 47 trailers, 53 fixed 
cameras, 24 "barrel cameras" and various "solar powered equipment."

The document said there were "plans to further expand the program 
into hub cities located within the interior of the United States and 
the Northern border."

Maass said the EFF recently analyzed eight days of data gathered by 
automated license plate readers on Oakland Police Department patrol 
cars, during which 48,717 unique plates were captured.

The amount of data being gathered by so many agencies means that 
eventually "they are going to have what amount to a locational time 
machine, with which you could jump back 5 years and see where 
everybody was on the planet," said Maass.

"The ACLU report is another indication how all these puzzle pieces 
are coming together. The more we get of this monstrous picture the 
more concerned we are getting."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom