Why is the DEA Conducting Mass License Plate Tracking and Why was it Allowed to Conduct Mass Surveillance of Americans’ Phones Records?

Friday, January 30, 2015
DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart (photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

To civil libertarians the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has become a major threat to Americans’ private lives, colleting information on a mass scale about people’s movements and overseas phone calls.


A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that the DEA has been operating “a massive national license plate reader program” that collects not only data on American automobiles gathered by the agency but also similar information collected by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies around the U.S.


Certain undated DEA documents acquired by the ACLU show that the agency had deployed at least 100 license plate readers across the country, having expanded its National License Plate Recognition Initiative from a program that originally focused only on the country’s southwest border crossings. Of the states that were provided with the readers, eight were identified in the documents: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New Jersey.


A 2010 DEA document identified three of those states—Texas, New Mexico, and California—as having established 41 statewide license plate reader monitoring stations. However, the ACLU was unable to learn the full extent of the program because the documents turned over by the DEA are years old and heavily redacted.


“These records do, however, offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country,” Bennett Stein wrote at the ACLU. “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.”


There were already 343 million records in the DEA’s license plate database at the time the undated documents were written.


Another DEA document discussed the agency’s goals for its program. The primary one, according to the agency, is asset forfeiture (a widely abused police program that stretches across the U.S.). A secondary goal is “to identify traffic patterns.”


Is the DEA trying “to predict our likelihood of committing a crime?” asked Stein. “Are we all suspects if we drive on a certain road?”


But the DEA didn’t stop with the license plate reader program. It has gone one step further and also been collecting volumes of information on Americans’ phone calls to and from certain countries. A document obtained by the ACLU named Iran as one country. Dozens of other nations may also be targeted, including Mexico, the Bahamas, and Afghanistan.


The DEA’s phone surveillance database includes phone numbers, along with the time, date and length of each call, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

FOIA Documents Reveal Massive DEA Program to Record American’s Whereabouts With License Plate Readers (by Bennett Stein, American Civil Liberties Union)

DEA Discloses Bulk Surveillance of Americans’ International Phone Calls (by Patrick Toomey, American Civil Liberties Union)

The Many Problems with the DEA's Bulk Phone Records Collection Program (by Hanni Fakhoury, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Trail of U.S. Criminal Investigations Altered to Cover up DEA Unit’s Role as Data Source (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


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