The federal government is tracking up to hundreds of millions of American vehicles in real time, recently released documents show.
Though the files obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union are heavily redacted and years old, they suggest that the so-called National License Plate Recognition Initiative is more widespread that has been publicly reported.
The program is run by the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA. But as some documents show, the trove of data is shared with any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency that is cleared for access, raising civil-liberties concerns for such a widespread, previously unknown program.
Previous license tracking programs that have been operated on the local scale show just how intrusive and comprehensive they can be.
In Oakland, for example, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Front, a non-profit organization aimed at defending civil liberties in the digital world, Oakland Police Department vehicles equipped with automatic license plate readers were able to collect 48,717 different numbers over eight days. The EFF released a heat map video of what this practice looks like.
That little red line that looks like an urban version of Snake represents a single police vehicle as it roams the streets of Oakland, and picks up license plates.
But more shockingly, this is what the data looks like when viewed in its totality:
Similarly, a Boston Globe investigation found in 2013 that the Boston Police Department had amassed a database of 68,000 license plate over a six-month period. The law enforcement agency indefinitely suspended their program after the report.
These are just two local examples of the kind of data that can be collected over a brief period of time.
Given their resources and cooperation from law enforcement agencies from across different levels (local, state, federal), it's hard to imagine the scope of the DEA's efforts, says the ACLU. One undated slide from the documents show that there were over 343 million records in the database at the time.
"As is the case with most police and federal law enforcement spy technologies, license plate tracking programs have flown under the radar of courts and legislators for far too long, silently collecting records about ordinary Americans in the cover of secrecy. When programs are secret, we have no way of challenging them or ensuring they conform with our values and the law," said the civil rights organization said in its DEA report. "Before accountability comes transparency."
The DEA has not yet responded to media reports about the program.
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.
Fidel Martinez is an editor at Fusion.net. He's also a Texas native and a lifelong El Tri fan.