National Geographic/Getty Images

Last week, privacy activists were outraged when they learned the federal government was tracking the movements of millions of license plates in real time, and sharing the information with federal, state, and local police.

The plates are tracked as part of a Drug Enforcement Agency program that tries to keep tabs on drugs and contraband as it moves through the country.

Today, the story gets a little freakier.

In addition to tracking license plates, the federal government has been taking and sharing photos of drivers and passengers inside the cars, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show.

Advertisement

License plate readers (LPRs) are designed to provide "the requester" with images of license plate vehicle numbers, in addition to "photos of visible vehicle occupants," one of the newly released documents reads.

“The requester” can be any federal, state or local police department that is granted access to the database.

Another document obtained by the ACLU reveals the cameras have the ability to "store up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos."

Advertisement

We don't know how many people's photos have been taken or logged from the DEA's license reading program, but one undated slideshow released last month showed that 343 million records were in the agency's database at the time. Considering this new development, we can infer that a certain portion of that data may contain photos of drivers and passengers.

The government and plate reader manufacturers have long argued that the technology does not infringe on the right to privacy, since it lacked the ability to identify individuals. But if photos of faces were cross-referenced with rapidly advancing facial recognition technology (such as the type about to be implemented at border crossings), the ability of the government to track individuals across federal databases would be unprecedented.

In fact, an October press release from a Vigilant Solutions, a license plate reader manufacturer, advertised the ability to integrate facial recognition technology with its plate readers with a new app. "In addition to the license plate recognition capture and analytic tools, the app also features Vigilant’s powerful FaceSearch® facial recognition which analyzes over 350 different vectors of the human face." the release reads.

In the past, the federal government has considered using the license plate tracking technology in questionable ways. The DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) once considered bringing the plate readers to gun shows in order to keep tabs on the vehicles that were attending, even though there was no indication that those vehicles were participating in illegal activity. The program was never implemented, according to the DEA, and it is unclear why the agencies were were discussing the prospect. Regardless, the discussions raised the ACLU's concerns about how participating in certain First Amendment-protected activities might lead to the government tracking your movements.

There is no federal policy that governs the use of plate readers, according to the ACLU. But on the local level, some cities have been litigating it on their own, with mixed results.

"Cameras will be directed only to capture the rear of vehicles and not into any place where a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ might exist," reads the license plate reader policy of Tiburon, Ca., according to the ACLU.

On the other extreme are places like Milwaukee, where the official policy states that data can include a "contextual photo (e.g. a photo of the scanned vehicle and/or occupants)."

Advertisement

"This all highlights the need for more light to be shed on this program and others like it," the ACLU said in a statement.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.