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DEA Using License-Plate Readers To Build Database Of Millions Of Drivers

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Under the authority of the Justice Department, the DEA has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of millions of vehicles around the country, current and newly released government documents show.

The now-not-so-secret domestic intelligence-gathering program scans license plates and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists in order to “seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking,” one government document says.

Since its inception however, the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with many other potential crimes.

Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border of Mexico to help ‘fight drug cartels.’

Many state and local law-enforcement agencies, who work closely with the federal government via regional threat fusion centers, access the database routinely for a variety of reasons.

With this information at their fingertips, local officials can track vehicles in real time on the roads.

The 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, DEA documents say.

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 traffic on the roads.

By 2011, the DEA had about 100 cameras feeding into the database, the documents show.

The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A spokesman for Justice Department, said 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.