Pando

The DEA isn't just tracking license plates -- it's taking pictures of vehicles' passengers, too

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 5, 2015

From The News Desk

The Drug Enforcement Administration is collecting information about more than just license plates with the tracking system revealed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Documents released by the ACLU this morning show that the DEA is also using the license plate readers (LPRs) on which this system relies to capture photographs of a vehicles' passengers. The images can then be run through facial recognition software.

This is meant to give the DEA more context about the people whose movements it's tracking with this program, which gathers data from more than 100 LPRs managed by an unknown number of police departments around the country to aid in their investigations.

The program was originally meant to assist with civil asset forfeiture cases, but it has since expanded to assist departments approved by the El Paso Intelligence Center with investigations into murders, rapes, and other crimes, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Previous reports indicated that the DEA was collecting license plate information about "millions" of Americans. That figure might be low if it didn't account for the number of plates collected versus the number of people in a vehicle when these images are taken.

Either way, this program represents a clear violation of privacy for many Americans, most of whom didn't know the DEA could collect this information. As I wrote before:

The result is a national surveillance program with an unknown number of contributors offering up location data about millions of Americans; all to a database used by an untold number of police departments without any public oversight regarding their searches.

That’s a problem. Backchannel reported in December that police have used their access to license plate readers to stalk former colleagues, and IB Times revealed earlier this month that Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) used location data to smear a political rival. Perhaps the DEA will support the program by claiming that learning who is in a vehicle isn't much different from learning where the vehicle was going -- it could all be considered metadata, and the government considers that information to be fair game.