DEA using license-plate readers to take photos of US drivers, documents reveal | World news | The Guardian

| February 6, 2015 | 0 Comments

DEA using license-plate readers to take photos of US drivers, documents reveal | World news | The Guardian.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is using license-plate reader technology to photograph motorists and passengers in the US as part of an official exercise to build a database on people’s lives.

According to DEA documents published on Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the agency is capturing images of occupants in the front and rear seats of vehicles in a programme that monitors Americans’ travel patterns on a wider scale than previously thought.

The disclosure follows the ACLU’s revelation last week about the potential scale of a DEA database containing the data of millions of drivers, which kindled renewed concern about government surveillance.

The latest published internal DEA communications, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that automated license plate scanners, known as ALPRs, record images of human beings as well as license plates.

A document from 2009 said the programme could provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle”.

A document from 2011 said the DEA’s system had the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos”.

The documents confirmed that license plate scanners did not always focus just on license plates, the ACLU said on Thursday: “Occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated.”

Photographing people inside cars was especially concerning in an age of face-recognition analytics since federal agencies would be “even more sure of exactly who they are surveilling”, the advocacy group said.

The DEA, which is part of the Justice Department, did not immediately respond to a Guardian request for comment.

The 2009 document was not previously known, the ACLU said. It included the 2011 document in last week’s disclosures. The Wall Street Journal noted that visual images of vehicle occupants were “sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities” but other aspects of the DEA surveillance – such as a proposal to monitor public meetings – largely overshadowed the detail about photographing vehicle occupants.

Using the technology in this way undermined law enforcement agencies’ claims that license plate images could not be used to identify individuals and did not violate individual privacy, said the ACLU. “This argument is thin already, but it certainly doesn’t fly with regards to photographs of the driver or passengers inside of a vehicle.”

Some local law enforcement agencies protected privacy by using the technology to photograph only the rear of vehicles, so occupants would not be recognised, but there was no evidence to suggest most agencies took such precautions, said the advocacy group.

Vigilant Solutions, a California company, which is one of the main providers of ALPR technology, announced last October that it had developed an app that integrated facial recognition technology into automated license-plate readers. The company did not immediately respond to a Guardian request for elaboration.

According to DEA documents, the buildup of a vehicle surveillance database stemmed from the agency’s appetite for asset forfeiture, a controversial practice of seizing possessions at traffic stops and vehicle pullovers if agents suspect they are criminal proceeds.

Last month, outgoing US attorney general Eric Holder opened a review into federal asset forfeiture.

Loretta Lynch, Holder’s would-be replacement, told a Senate confirmation hearing last month that a number of people had questions about the practice.

In a letter to Holder, senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy wrote that they “remain concerned that government programs that track citizens’ movements, see inside homes and collect data from the phones of innocent Americans raise serious privacy concerns”.

Privacy watchers were quick to condemn the DEA’s surveillance programme. Clark Neily, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian law firm, called it “deeply concerning and creepy”.

Category: Privacy

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