DEA Builds Spying Database


The Justice Department has been building a national database to track motorists in real time according to a blockbuster article in the Wall Street Journal this morning. The sweep relies on license plate readers and includes the driving records of current and former government officials. The program itself is managed directly by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and is the latest in an ongoing and hopeless drug war.

The DEA uses the data to seize cars and other assets of those involved in drug related activities, but the database has also been used for other crimes including kidnappings. License plate readers are not new, and are used by law enforcement for red light cameras or other moving violations, and were known to be used by the DEA near the Mexico border. However, the Journal piece highlights the expansion of this network throughout the US. State and local law enforcement have also been given access to the network for their own tracking purposes.

CivSource previously reported on the use of license plate readers in Virginia. In that instance, law enforcement made a broad sweep of attendees at political rallies supporting President Obama. At the time they cited security concerns, although whether that database is still in use was never disclosed. Virginia officials acting on a ruling in 2010 from then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, are said to have purged license plate data which would have included the 2009 recordings from political rallies. Yet, given that the original request came from the secret service, it is likely that the 2009 data remains in federal files.

Around the same time that the Virginia news broke, another piece in The Hindu noted that the Obama administration is also working with Indian officials on megacity policing tactics. “An advance course in surveillance, control room design and its operation by various security agencies and police authorities are key elements of this concept. A high-level workshop is being planned for senior police and intelligence officers from both sides in megacity policing. Similarly, various agencies involved in emergency services will also be trained on public safety and crisis management, while specialised Operation Security for Public Safety Agencies Counter Terrorism Training Programme and Critical Incident Response Training Programme jointly by the FLETC and the U.S. Border and Custom Protection are also being planned,” an official in the story said. These efforts seem notable now in light of President Obama’s recent India trip.

In November, CivSource reported on a new study that shows that police are also relying heavily on social media monitoring as a means of investigating and anticipating criminal activity.

Elsewhere, civic startup CrimeReports has launched a program that allows individuals to register their security cameras with law enforcement. The first pilot program was recently launched in Sacremento, California.

In light of recent developments, the ACLU has sounded the alarm about citizen privacy and unreasonable search and seizure concerns resulting from the widespread use of these types of technologies. Speaking at the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Listening Session on Building Trust and Legitimacy, held in Washington D.C. earlier this month, Laura W. Murphy Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office said in her testimony that policing looks like militarization. “It looks like big-brother surveillance where automated license plate readers record the whereabouts of millions each week in Los Angeles.”

“This is not what policing in the 21st century should look like. As we determine best practices that will build trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities they serve, the focus of this statement will be on solutions that will better define the role of police in a democratic society; build a culture of transparency; engage all community residents, including youth; and advance the pillars of procedural justice – respect, legitimacy, transparency, and fairness – that will ultimately result in law enforcement treating the communities they serve as they would want to be treated.”

Despite calls by the ACLU and other advocacy groups, it appears little is being done to stop or even limit the growth of these types of programs. The Journal piece, also touches on its November report that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones.