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DEA program capable of tracking movements of millions, ACLU says

License plates tracked by law enforcement agencies shared with DEA to create national database, documents show

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been quietly collecting data on millions of Americans since 2008 using license plate readers as part of the widening of a program originally aimed at locating drug traffickers, according to documents received by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The records show that the program, called the National License Plate Recognition Initiative, is capable of tracking the movements of everyday Americans all over the country, a press release by the ACLU said Monday. The documents, which also revealed a proliferation of license plate readers in the United States, did not reveal the budget for the program. 

"The DEA's license plate reader programs raise serious civil liberties concerns, and the agency should be open about what it is doing so that those activities can be subject to public debate," an ACLU press release said Monday. "When programs are secret, we have no way of challenging them or ensuring they conform with our values and the law. Before accountability comes transparency."

The DEA referred Al Jazeera's request for comment to the Department of Justice, of which it is a part, but the DOJ had not responded at the time of publishing. A DOJ spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that 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.

The ACLU received the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the DEA about the agency's National License Plate Recognition Initiative, which connects DEA license plate readers with those of other law enforcement agencies around the country.

The ACLU received one undated slide that showed there were more than 343 million records in the program's database at one point. The documents revealed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, collects data on "nearly 100 percent of land border traffic," — more than 793 million license plates between May 2009 and May 2013 — and shares its data with the DEA. In addition, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies shared information with the DEA for the program, according to documents.

The ACLU said the heavily redacted documents revealed that the DEA program allows data mining of license plate reader data "to identify travel patterns." The DEA said the program targets the roadways believed to be commonly used for transporting contraband, although it was unclear how that determination was made.

"Is the DEA running all of our license plate reads through a program to predict our likelihood of committing a crime? Are we all suspects if we drive on a certain road? What else does the DEA think it knows about us just from the collection and analysis of our locations via license plate reader data?" asked the ACLU press release.

The documents also suggest that the DEA retains license plate information for six months for "non-hit" data, or records that are not matched to any crime. Under its original policy, the DEA retained that data for a longer period of time, the release added.

"While this is an improvement from previous statements of DEA retention policy, it is still far too long," the ACLU release said. "The government should not collect or retain information revealing the movements of millions of people accused of no crime."

The information disclosed so far by the DEA leaves many questions unanswered, the ACLU said, including how many license plate readers the program can access. In a sign that the program was set to widen further, documents showed a "significant investment" by the federal government into automatic license plate readers and "unregulated and largely unseen location tracking programs." 

The DEA itself has deployed 100 license plate readers that the ACLU knows of, but that doesn't include the much larger number of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies' readers or the CBP readers — which share information with the DEA. It is unclear if private corporations that deploy such readers share information with the DEA, the ACLU said. The exact number of license plate readers the DEA has access to through the program remains unknown.

It is also unclear which policies govern the use of license plate readers or the use of the license plate reader database, the ACLU added. More documents will be released "documenting the federal government’s significant investment in automatic license plate readers and its unregulated and largely unseen location tracking programs" in coming weeks, according to the ACLU release.

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