The ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request has resulted in startling news about the DEA’s tracking devices: that cameras designed to collect license plate information and store it in a database can track far more than that. The ACLU reports that some agencies are using the devices broadly, collecting not only multiple images of the vehicle and license plate, but as many as four shots per car of the occupants.
According to information obtained by the ACLU, the program, which began in 2008, involves stationary and mobile cameras that collect information about vehicles, travel patterns, and more. Though the information the ACLU received was heavily redacted, emails appear to show that the devices were either used or planned for use at gun shows, where, as the ACLU points out, they could not help police prove that a vehicle was being used to traffic illegal guns, or carry legal guns, but merely as tracking devices that would record the movements of citizens who elected to attend a gun show — in other words, it’s unlikely the DEA’s tracking devices near a gun show would help enforce the law, instead of simply keeping tabs on law-abiding citizens.
Though the ACLU released information on these tracking devices earlier this year,the information they are continuing to recover shows additional concerns. The cameras may capture images of passengers, in many cases clear enough for investigators to identify the car’s occupants by the photos.
That’s not all: the organization goes on to cite a case of the devices storing images of a man and his daughter — a man accused of no crime — exiting his vehicle at his home. A company connected to one such device, Vigilant Solutions, proudly announced in October that it had now added facial recognition abilities to its tracking app — an app originally designed to scan license numbers and compare them to lists of stolen vehicles.
The ACLU’s recovered information further notes that some cities are storing images of as many as an estimated 10 million vehicles, and that these images can include not only front and back plates and vehicle exterior, but images of the driver and passengers, as well as location information. One city’s policy the ACLU discovered deleted images after 48 hours. Another has a data policy requiring information gained from the tracking devices to be stored for five years. More frightening, many locations have no policy whatsoever regarding the storage time of the images.
These tracking devices aren’t used only by the Federal agency, either: the ACLU requested information from over 600 state and local agencies, too. If these images are then being shared with the Federal agency, even photos from a district where the retention policy on gathered data is short-term may be stored in a Federal database for a more permanent time. The DEA hasn’t shared any official policy on information-sharing, if they have one.
The ACLU expresses its concern as centering, in part, on the DEA and other agencies using the devices to target activity protected by the First Amendment. It’s also calling for more light to be shed on the devices and the policies surrounding their use. The organization is also expressing a need for court opinions on the collection of this data, and its use.
Are these DEA tracking devices an unreasonable invasion of privacy, or merely the electronic age’s natural extension of simple observation of actions that take place in public view?
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