DEA Collecting Massive Database Of Your Driving Habits In Secret, Using License Plate Readers

from the disband-the-dea dept

What is up with the DEA? For all the focus on the NSA, the CIA and even the FBI, it really seems like the agency that is absolutely out of control is the DEA. In just the last few months, we’ve written about the DEA having its own giant database of metadata on phone calls (with less oversight than the NSA), how it has embedded telco employees who are able to snoop on subscribers in real-time for the DEA, how the DEA is deeply involved in parallel construction (using intelligence info collected under questionable means to arrest someone and then to hide or lie to judges about that information), how it paid a secretary at Amtrak $850,000 to give them all of Amtrak’s passenger lists, how it was (with the NSA) recording every single phone call in the Bahamas and, finally, how it was impersonating people on Facebook.

And now, the latest is that the DEA has been building a massive database of your travel habits using automatic license plate readers. These license plate readers have been used increasingly by law enforcement, and the ACLU has been tracking their growing usage for years. A year ago, we wrote about Homeland Security putting out a call for a national license plate reader program, resulting in public outrage. While it eventually scrapped those public plans, we noted at the time that DHS still had access to plenty of other databases of license plate reader data, including one in ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement).

But the latest news is that the DEA also had a huge database of this info as well:

The new DEA records that we received are heavily redacted and incomplete, but they provide the most complete documentation of the DEA?s database to date. For example, the DEA has previously testified that its license plate reader program began at the southwest border crossings, and that the agency planned to gradually increase its reach; we now know more about to where it has grown. The DEA had previously suggested that ?other sources? would be able to feed data into the database; we now know about some of the types of agencies collaborating with the DEA.

The documents uncovered by our FOIA request provide additional details, but their usefulness is limited by the DEA?s decision to provide only documents that are undated or years old. If the DEA?s collection of location information is as extensive as the agency has suggested in its limited comments to legislatures, the public deserves a more complete and comprehensive explanation than the smattering of records we have obtained can provide.

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. 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 (particularly if combined with other data about individuals collected by the government, such as the DEA?s recently revealed bulk phone records program, or cell phone information gleaned from U.S. Marshals Service?s cell site simulator-equipped aircraft ). Data-mining the information, an unproven law enforcement technique that the DEA has begun to use here, only exacerbates these concerns, potentially tagging people as criminals without due process.

Among the information the ACLU’s new documents show, is that the DEA already taps into other agencies’ license plate reader databases, including local law enforcement and federal agencies like those in DHS. The records the ACLU obtained note that there were over 343 million records in the database (but the redactions on the document obscure the date of that finding, so it’s likely much larger today).

Oh, and then there’s this: one of the main points of the program is to help law enforcement steal seize things from the public:

And, of course, the DOJ is trying to downplay the whole thing:

A spokesman for Justice Department, which includes the DEA, said the program complies with federal law. ?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,?? the spokesman said.

That’s a bullshit response on any number of levels. It may not be new that the DEA is using the technology, but the extent of its usage, and the efforts it has taken to keep it secret are new. On top of that, the fact that its primary purpose is to help with seizures is a pretty big deal, especially given the rest of what the DEA has been doing lately. It makes you wonder if there’s any oversight at all on this stuff.

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Comments on “DEA Collecting Massive Database Of Your Driving Habits In Secret, Using License Plate Readers”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Doesn’t it feel great? I mean, you see money that you could be using to pay your stuff being used by the Government to screw you. And try not paying to see what happens with you…

I’m in a slightly different situation, the money I’m paying is simply being used very inefficiently and going to the pockets of the politicians. Seems it’s a bit less bad than having your money come back to screw you :/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: easy solution

“fuck the law everyone start sharing liscense plates like file sharing”

Bad idea. A car with a license plate not registered to it basically screams “STOLEN CAR OR OTHER ILLEGAL ACTIVITY GOING ON HERE! STOP ME AND ARREST ME ASAP!!!”

“or make sure you put a giant penis beside each side of the plate so they get what they really after the fags”

They don’t want your dick. They want your money and/or other property. The only parts of your anatomy they’re interested in are those sufficiently concave that you could hide something in them.

TruthHurts (profile) says:

License Plate != Driver

The entire database is garbage, license plates do not equate to drivers.
How many “false” or “counterfeit” plates are on the roads?

How many cars are “borrowed”, “rented”, “stolen” and then used for criminal activities???

Sorry but any data collected within these databases is questionable at best, meaningless in most cases.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: License Plate != Driver

Thats why one of their stated goals is to help in asset forfeiture.

If you can’t prove who is driving, it’s the car that’s criminal.
No need for proceedings like DEA vs. presumed criminal if you can have DEA vs. one shady looking BMW.
As the car isn’t contesting the charge it must surely be guilty. Off to the auction or your favorite agent/officer driveway.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: So... another piece of the Asset Seizure Puzzle appears?

…the ‘War on Drugs’ looking more and more like officials attempting to ‘get their cut’ of the action without looking ‘too illegal’ about it?

I have said it before, but it is worth repeating.

Beware. Clear, logical thinking, like that, can get you listed by your own government, as a possible terrorist and leave you open to extraordinary rendition to a foreign country without due process, where you will be tortured for no particular reason until you die, without anyone in your family or among your friends ever knowing where you went, or why you left.

Oh and I forgot to mention, your taxes will pay for the entire “service”.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: So... another piece of the Asset Seizure Puzzle appears?

I have to admit, the Bread and Circus, A-Team VS B-Team syndrome does indeed have a far reaching secondary effect – one you have aptly named Partisan Nitwit Disease, hereafter referred to as PND.

PND is, I believe, a direct side effect of our national habit of armchair warfare participation.

We have learned to always pick one side or another – “What Side Are You On” – in so many areas of life that we can only judge side A by comparing it to side B.

Things that do not have an obvious duality for comparison simply leave us baffled.

Social engineering at its best I guess.

Baron von Robber says:

Was thinking of a Startup

Might call it…


It would be a license plate reader for any citizen to mount to their vehicle. It would specifically look for government vehicles and especially, vehicles belonging to Marc Rubio and other officials who support spying on our own citizenry.

But there will be filters to remove those districts, etc, that don’t have license plate readers and/or demonstrate they drop data if no hits found for stolen vehicles. Also those opposing such collection would also be scrubbed.

Well, at least it’s a nice dream.

Anonymous Coward says:

I could maybe see License Plate Readers being used to find a targeted individual. However, all license plate data for individuals who are not currently being targeted, should be automatically deleted from the national LPR database. Warrants are also needed for adding targeted license plates to the national LPR database.

Of course that not what’s happening. Everyone’s license plate data is being stored in the national LPR database, indefinitely without a warrant. Which reaffirms that these national LPR databases aren’t about catching targeted criminals and terrorists. These national LPR databases are just another tentacle of the mass surveillance octopus.

Catching terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, and rapists is just the pretext being used to justify the untargeted, suspicionless, and unwarranted mass surveillance programs which are destroying civil rights, freedom, and democracy.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I could maybe see License Plate Readers being used to find a targeted individual. However, all license plate data for individuals who are not currently being targeted, should be automatically deleted from the national LPR database.”


I actually have no problem with the use ALPRs in and of themselves. I have a a really, really huge problem with ALPR data being recorded in a database unless the specific license plate is part of an actual, proper investigation.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is an end-run around the Supreme Court’s ruling that a search warrant is needed before government authorities can track a person’s car using a GPS device. We may soon reach the point when most roads in the country will have license plate readers, so a car can be tracked everywhere it goes, almost as well as using GPS.

Except that unlike GPS, no warrant is needed.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

This is incredibly dangerous

(Quoting myself from a submission to Dave Farber’s excellent IP list)

There are many objectionable things about this program, but one that’s (perhaps) less than obvious is that the databases being constructed by it are enormously tempting targets for third parties. To stalkers, kidnappers, spies, pedophiles, rapists, blackmailers, extortionists and other people, this is a motherlode just waiting to be mined. (And the best part? They don’t have to spend the money to compile it. It’s already been paid for by US citizens.)

I’m sure we’ll be told that it’s being gathered, stored, and searched securely. And that it will never be misused. And that it will never be breached or leaked. And that it’s completely immune from this:

tomczerniawski (profile) says:

License plates are just one of many ways a car can be tracked as it is. OnStar, GPS, other transponders like toll road passes, any personal mobile devices that might be brought on board; they’re practically rolling location transmitters.

Someone with the power to pool all these tracking resources into one master map could get a very accurate bead on the position of any vehicle they deemed interesting.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yep, and then map that to everything else they have on every citizen.

It is a beautiful idea in some ways. They could actually enforce laws we care about. In 200 years historians could
tell the truth about what was happening now.

Too bad about human nature guaranteeing that it is a radically unsustainable time bomb incompatible with democracy and rule of law.

Anonymous Coward says:

You know, I look at all this money being funneled into the war on drugs, the spying that is going on, the on going hostilities in Iraq, and all the politicians and private companies at the food trough to be paid.

Then I look around at the country and see rolling brownouts from lack of enough electricity generation, the poor electricity infrastructure, the need to widen nearly all interstates, the poor condition of our education system, the lack of jobs and the economy, the fact that it takes more than one person’s wages just to pay rent and realize where all that money is going.

The whole system is eat up with corruption.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is the future of elections...

“My opponent might seem to be honest, a leader of caliber and yes he might have made medical care free for all, made sure even the poorest have food on the table, improved learning in schools, insured prosperity for all and saved a puppy from a burning building, but liceseplate data has show that he was in a 3 mile radius of a bordello, a strip club and no less than 4 known pedophiles at least four times a month. You make your own judgement and decide if this is the kind of guy who should lead”

You just know who will win that one.

Anonymous Coward says:

License-Plate Logging at Gun Shows

A link to this article was not included in the story:

DEA Planned to Monitor Gun Show Attendees With License Plate Readers, New Emails Reveal

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collaborated on plans to monitor gun show attendees using automatic license plate readers, according to a newly disclosed DEA email obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.

Beware, exercising your Constitutionally-protected rights can easily get you on a government watch-list.

David says:

Re: License-Plate Logging at Gun Shows

Beware, exercising your Constitutionally-protected rights can easily get you on a government watch-list.

Well, that’s pretty much the definition of what can get you on a “watch-list”. If you are seen actually breaking the law, you go to court instead.

So as long as you are not proposing to abolish watch lists altogether, whatever will get you on those lists will be stuff you are actually allowed to do.

Beta (profile) says:

what technology allows

This was inevitable, and not hard to foresee.

Now we’re talking about laws to prevent the police from collecting such data; if we pass such laws, the police will still do it. In a few years, anyone will be able to sift through a huge volume of publicly-available camera footage (security cams, body cams, dashboard cams, bike cams, traffic cams, phone selfies, quadcopter video, whatever) with a common OCR app and produce similar results. We can pass laws against it, for all the good that will do. The government will talk about requiring that all cameras recognize license plates and blur them– with predictable results.

We’re not far from the appearance of the same thing with facial recognition; snap a picture of a face that interests you, then scan the distributed archives to see where and when that face has appeared in photos or video over the past ten years, anywhere in the world. The government will try to forbid this, but also to have it.

I really don’t see that we can do much about this.

GEMont (profile) says:

Inevitable Corruption

When a large portion of Law Enforcement’s income/funding is derived from assets seized from the Illegal Drug Industry, there is less incentive to stop the Illegal Drug Industry because that would end the flow of cash and assets that Law Enforcement gets to keep.

Instead, in order to continue the flow of cash and assets to Law Enforcement from the Illegal Drug Industry, Law Enforcement will start to protect the backbone of the Illegal Drug Industry – the men and women who control the manufacture and distribution of illegal drugs – and limit its “enforcement” to lesser departments of the Illegal Drug Industry such as street vendors.

I have no doubt at all, that this situation already exists.

When one finds a money tree, it is always better to regularly pluck its fruit over time, than to chop down the tree and settle for just the fruit that happens to be presently ripe.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Inevitable Corruption

Not really necessary, since at the start of the Drug War, hardly anyone used drugs, and it was necessary to offer the police extra vacation points for adding drug-discoveries to as many collars as was possible, in order to create the appearance of massive drug use.

Almost every crime became a drug-associated crime.

The same thing has been done for peer to peer by the legacy industries, in order to convince the public that the new laws concerning copyright and net neutrality are necessary to stem the growth of a criminal tsunami called piracy.

The corporations that are writing the new laws that will remove the internet’s ability to be a communication media between people world wide and turn it instead into another commercial garbage can like TV, are the same companies that created and owned the websites that distributed the original p2p software and instructed the public in the process of downloading copyrighted material.

In order to make laws that will hand the internet over to Hollywood, they first had to create a criminal activity that could be turned into “a serious problem necessitating drastic measures to solve.” in the public’s mind.

If all p2p came to an end tomorrow, the news would still be filled with stories of evil pirates stealing the hard earned money of artists by sharing files.

If everyone stopped using every illegal drug tomorrow, the reports of illegal drug use and illegal drug busts and illegal drug deaths would continue to escalate exactly as if nothing had changed.

We are being managed.

Teame Zazzu (user link) says:


You don’t understand the real danger of this system until you understand it is cross-indexed and correlated with JLENS radar geo-location chronographs, Wide Area Motion Imagery – also known as Wide Area Persistent Surveillance and your cellphone metadata via NSA and US Marshall’s Stingrays and Dirtboxes.

ALPR are used to positively identify vehicle occupants at transit chokepoints and match their face and license plate with the geo-location metadata from their cellphone as well as the overhead surveillance – including EO/IR WAMI data and JLENS radar geo-location tracklets.

ALPR allows for radar and cellphone tracking to replace the need for overhead “cameras” by tracking your device (car, phone or WAMI tracklets) and matching it to a hi-res photo of who was driving the car and associate your identity with your geo-location data from each source.

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