DEA License-Plate Scanners Snap Photos of Drivers and Passengers

The ability of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s license-plate scanners to snap photographs of drivers and their passengers raises privacy concerns in the age of facial-recognition software, a civil liberties group said.

The American Civil Liberties Union obtained records about the system’s photographic capabilities and published them today. Last month, the organization released a trove of records about the DEA program license-plate program, which deploys more than 100 plate readers across at least eight U.S. states.

Combining driver photographs with facial-recognition software that’s now available raises the potential for identifying and tracking citizens around the country, according to the civil liberties organization.

“This adds a whole other dimension to what is already a very significant surveillance infrastructure,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, said in an interview. “Facial recognition software holds the potential to super charge this kind of system. We haven’t seen anything like a nationwide systematic infrastructure snapping photographs of Americans as they go about their lives, and this is what this appears it can turn into.”

Other federal, state and local agencies can feed data to the system and access it. An undated slideshow obtained by the ACLU revealed that the license-plate database had more than 343 million records.

The license-plate scanning is designed to combat drug trafficking and help authorities solve other crimes. A DEA spokesman, Joseph Moses, defended the program, saying it is limited in scope and has not been kept secret, noting it has been discussed over the years in congressional testimony.

Surveillance Technology

The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have expressed alarm about police and federal law enforcement officials adopting surveillance technology -- ranging from mobile-phone trackers to portable fingerprint readers -- without strict oversight from government bodies or the courts.

The ACLU last month also published government e-mails showing the DEA and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collaborated on plans to use DEA’s scanners to read license plates of cars arriving at gun shows. The DEA didn’t participate in the gun show initiative, Moses said.

“An automatic license plate reader cannot distinguish between people transporting illegal guns and those transporting legal guns, or no guns at all; it only documents the presence of any car driving to the event,” the ACLU said in a blog post last month. “Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.”