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Why Is the DEA Tracking License Plates?

The DEA's license plate tracking program is just the latest case of surveillance gone wrong.
(Photo: Hamed Saber/Flickr)

(Photo: Hamed Saber/Flickr)

A license plate tracking program run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which was publicly launched to combat drug-related crimes along the borders, has been privately expanded throughout the United States. The Wall Street Journal reports that the database program, which began in 2008, initially tracked cars only in border states to monitor the movement of drug money and contraband. Now, states throughout the U.S. are feeding information into the system:

The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.

It's troubling that the Justice Department can use the drug war to roll out a surveillance program that likely impinges on the privacy of millions of law-abiding Americans, given that in the nearly five decades since the war on drugs began, law enforcement policies have done little to stifle drug trade. Since 1990, the price of illegal drugs has plummeted, even as their purity increased, according to a 2013 study in BMJ Open. Despite ever-increasing funding for law enforcement to combat drug use, hundred of tons of illicit drugs are sold in the U.S. each year. The rates of drug use among high school students, meanwhile, have remained steady since the war on drugs began, while drug overdoses have only increased. And as Maia Szalavitz recently reported, it seems that anti-drug propaganda from the height of the drug war had little effect on use and perceptions of illicit drugs—except to maybe increase the use of marijuana.

The license plate surveillance program is just the latest scandal to make Americans feel like they're always being watched. The Journal reported last fall that the Justice Department was using planes that mimicked cell towers to scoop up identifying information from criminals' cell phones—and anyone else’s that happened to connect to the traveling tower. And the increasing presence of surveillance cameras in public spaces ensures that we’re virtually always being watched. Despite the lack of evidence that these programs have served to solve or deter a significant number of crimes, society still appears headed toward a brave new world of constant surveillance.