Attention highway drivers: Smile, the DEA is watching. The feds are making use of license-plate reading technology to run a database that tracks millions of cars in real time around the US, report the Wall Street Journal and the ACLU. The agency makes use of its own readers on major interstates and also taps into those used by local and state police agencies. The DEA program started relatively small, focusing on cars near the border with Mexico to track drug smugglers. That part's not a surprise. "What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand the database 'throughout the United States,'" writes the Journal, citing one of the emails it obtained.
A Justice Department spokesperson says the program, which sometimes involves cameras that capture images of drivers, isn't illegal. But "any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,’’ says an ACLU official. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy echoes the concern, saying drivers shouldn't have to worry that "their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database.’" The agency reportedly keeps the data for three months. (Like the NSA, the DEA also had a database of phone records.)