DEA Program to Track License Plates, Designed to Combat Drug Cartels, Has Other Uses

A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) program to track license plates, designed to combat drug trafficking, is being used for other purposes, The Wall Street Journal reports. The database is also being employed to search for vehicles associated with other crimes, including kidnappings and murders, according to the newspaper.

The license-plate program is being built by the Justice Department to track vehicle movement in real time, the article notes. The program scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about drivers.

The primary purpose of the program is to seize cars, cash and other assets associated with drug trafficking, one government document states. Officials have publicly said they track vehicles near the U.S.-Mexico border to fight drug cartels. Current and former officials familiar with the program told The Wall Street Journal the database’s use has expanded. Many state and local law enforcement agencies are using it for other types of investigations, they said. The program collects data about vehicle movements from high-tech cameras placed on major highways. Many cameras also record images of drivers and passengers. Sometimes they are clear enough for law enforcement to confirm a person’s identity.

A spokesman for the Justice Department, which includes the DEA, told the newspaper the program complies with federal law. “It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking intensity,’’ the spokesman said.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the newspaper the program “raises significant privacy concerns.” He called for “additional accountability’’ and said Americans shouldn’t have to fear “their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database.’’

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