Calif. Privacy Laws Complicate DEA License Plate Tracking

Privacy has been a major concern for the American public in the last several years, primarily because of leaked or released information about government projects involving collecting information about civilian activity. Concerns about the government keeping records of movements, Internet searches, and even conversations have prompted some states to pass legislation to enhance personal privacy protections.

On January 26, new information regarding a program called the License Plate Recognition Initiative surfaced when the ACLU published the findings of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) records. The ACLU report suggests that there are 100 license plate readers currently being used by the DEA.

The report found that the DEA proposed and implemented a License Plate Recognition Initiative in 2008 and that the program is currently in use in 8 states: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and California.

The program collects data from civilian automobiles using license plate readers deployed by the DEA as well as readers used by other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The ACLU reported that this information is then stored in a collective database for 6 months. According to the ACLU, the DEA says that this information is used to monitor drug trafficking and contraband transport.

Since the license plate recognition program has just come to life, data has yet to release on its impact on drug seizures at the California border. However, what is known is drug trafficking at the state’s border with Mexico has increased in the last few years.

“The amount of heroin seized at the Southwest Border increased significantly between 2008 and 2012 and this, along with other indicators, points to increased smuggling of both Mexican-produced heroin and South American-produced heroin through Mexico,” the 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary found.

Similarly, Mexican methamphetamine seizures increased between 2008 and 2012. The report also suggests that the increase “indicate[s] rising domestic availability, most of which is the result of high levels of methamphetamine production in Mexico.”

The issue that remains is how the program tracks everyone, including individuals who are potential drug traffickers. According to the ACLU report, the DEA targets “roadways that the agency believes are commonly used for contraband transport.” However, critics point out that such broad criteria means almost every major roadway in the U.S. could be rightly monitored under that definition.

As with several other federal surveillance programs, details of the LPRI are sparse. Official statements and reports are usually vague or redacted, and oversight is seldom made public. Likewise, civilian privacy concerns drove a Department of Homeland Security LPR program to a very public halt, according to the Washington Post.

California’s Checks on Auto-Surveillance

Since the surveillance program has come to light, several California privacy laws governing vehicles and personal identification may set the stage for a legal challenge.

Currently, the DEA is the only federal agency operating a database of information collected by license plate readers.
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, California adopted laws similar to the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 that regulate how license plate readers are used in the state.

For example, state agencies “must be authorized by law to collect such information” and prove that collecting this information is “necessary for the agency to perform its duties.” State agencies are also required to inform individuals that information is being collected and why it is being collected.

These individuals can “demand that personal information about them may be corrected or deleted” because states “must maintain records with reasonable accuracy, relevance, timeliness and completeness.”

After seven years of existence, the License Plate Recognition Initiative is still largely a mystery. Details on how much data has been collected and how successful the program actually is at apprehending drug traffickers have yet to be disclosed.

How it Started

In a report in 2012 by the ACLU, the DEA wrote in testimony to Congress that “[w]ithin the United States, DEA has worked with Department of Homeland Security to implement its ‘License Plate Reader Initiative’ (LPR) in the Southwest border region to gather intelligence, particularly on movements of weapons and cash into Mexico.” However, this supplemental program was cancelled in March 2014.

Currently, the DEA is the only federal agency operating a database of information collected by license plate readers.

The technology behind license plate readers was created by the UK’s Police Scientific Development Branch in 1976 for the purpose of aiding law enforcement. In the United States, license plate readers have been utilized all over the country by local and state law enforcement since at least the mid-2000s.

Now with a federal database possessing 343 million records, according to the ACLU, opponents say the growth of license plate reader programs seriously threatens American privacy. With license plate tracking and surveillance becoming more advanced and widespread, it will be interesting to watch these programs grow and how they affect the lives of American civilians.

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