As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the US government has been using license plate scanning technology to track millions of drivers on US roadways. This has raised major concerns with privacy advocates.
The national vehicle database program was established by the DEA in 2008 to “assist with locating, identifying, and seizing bulk currency, guns, and other illicit contraband moving along the southwest border and throughout the United States.” (Asset seizure, which this program was meant to help, has also come under scrutiny recently.)
Since then, however, the program has expanded its reach to a point that makes many observers uncomfortable. In 2009, the database was opened to state and local authorities and many states began feeding their own data into the federal program. Many of the program’s cameras, initially placed on major highways solely to collect data about vehicle location and direction, have added the ability to capture images of drivers and passengers. And these images are being used to identify and locate suspects for many crimes beyond drug trafficking.
While tracking criminals seems like a valid use of the system, the concern is that all drivers, not just criminals, are being tracked and having their movements recorded. (The WSJ report mentions data was initially stored for 2 years; that has since been reduced to 3 months.)
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, is one of the parties concerned by this tracking system:
Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions. It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided. It shouldn’t be done in secret.
Politicians have also voiced their disapproval of the license-plate reader program. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says the program “raises significant privacy concerns. The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government’s asset-forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern.”
In 2012, Utah lawmakers denied the program’s request to feed state license-plate reader data into the federal database. They cited that the DEA’s map of major drug routes included most of the national highway system and noted the privacy overreach that this allowed for.
The question remains: now that light has been shed on this program, will there be any policy changes to curtail it? A DEA phone tracking program was canceled in 2013. Will the license-plate tracking program be next?