ACLU: DEA tracks Americans' movements, plans to data mine license plate records

Do you ever feel like you are being watched when you drive? The ACLU believes that feeling of being watched is justified and not only while you're driving. 


It started with the DEA wanting to expand technology that captures and then stores vehicle license plate data for two years. Although the ACLU had warned that automated license plate readers (ALPRs) are helping to create a "surveillance society" in the USA by tracking our movements, it now seems there may be plans to data mine all those stored plates.

The DEA reportedly wants to use this tech "for ‘intelligence' and to ‘research the movements' of suspects, and for ‘statistical information' which points "toward efforts to data mine license data." In a chilling example of what may come to pass due to data mining license plate records, the ACLU wrote:

The police develop virtual reality glasses that, when the wearer looks at a vehicle, summarize in clear, at-a-glance graphical form various information: the owner's police record, how many points the owner has on his or her license, how far from home the vehicle is, the owner's TSA Pre-Check score, and other data. This creates a negative feedback cycle for some unfortunates, because those whose profile attracts attention are stopped by the police with disproportionate frequency, including for minor infractions-leading to an even worse profile.

License plate scanners are "logging your every move," according to the ACLU, as was previously noted in "surrounded by surveillance: is everything spying on you?" The "technology is rapidly approaching the point where it could be used to reconstruct the entire movements of any individual vehicle." The latest ALPR threat started with the DEA wanting to capture all license plates of vehicles traveling Interstate 15 in Utah. Oddly enough, Utah is considered part of "the border" even though no part of Utah touches the border of Mexico. The government defines "the border" as 100 miles inward from the true border. The ACLU points out that no part of Utah is even within a 100 miles of the real border, but:

As usual, the authorities also tried to package their proposal with all kinds of soothing promises: the data would not be used except to catch drug traffickers and to investigate "serious crimes." The data would not be cross-referenced with other databases containing driver's names (and therefore presumably to the vast realms of other information that that would be available). The data would not be used to locate people with outstanding traffic tickets and misdemeanor warrants.

This is what you call sugaring a pill so that people will swallow it. Anyone who thinks all of the above will never happen doesn't know much about history. We've seen this dynamic many times-a new surveillance technique is unveiled supposedly for use only against the most extreme criminals and is quickly expanded to much broader use.


As the costs of ALPR and other such technologies decrease, and if "no restrictions are placed upon police use of it," the ACLU expects many other chilling scenarios may happen. This includes the cops monitoring movements and then pulling drivers over on a "pretext" like "driving erratically" to search the car and then open a file on the driver. The creepy scenarios the ACLU provided don't stop there.

The FBI begins investigating a man because he visited a series of places-a mosque, a hardware store, and a money-transfer service-that the government's computers have flagged as "suspicious."

The FBI opens a probe into the background of a woman because her car was parked at an apartment building-and then coincidentally again later at a store-at the same time as a man who is on a terrorist watch list.

Maybe a DEA risk analysis system could alert cops that a specific car is driving a specific route every month. Then federal agents might knock on the door of the allegedly "suspicious" driver's home for interrogation purposes. Toss in a bit more circumstantial evidence and the feds may get a warrant, may send SWAT to raid the house, to shoot the family dog dead and to traumatize a child. Oh wait, that really did happen and the violent raid went viral. As did the time the cops went to the wrong house and shot an innocent man's dog.

This sort of automatic scanning and building license plate databases for data mining, the ACLU predicts, will make Americans feel like "they are being watched wherever they drive and must constantly ask themselves, ‘Am I doing anything suspicious?' When they watch movies of the old days when people could drive around anonymously, they feel nostalgic for that lost freedom."

"We have enjoyed so much freedom for so long that we are perhaps in danger of forgetting how much blood it cost to establish the Bill of Rights," said Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; he also helped found the ACLU in 1920. He would probably roll over in his grave if he saw the way technology is being used to help freedom slip away, little by little, in America.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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