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EFF Takes On DEA Phone Surveillance In Federal Lawsuit

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the organization Human Rights Watch affirming that the DEA, acting on behalf of the Justice Department, violated the Constitution by secretly gathering logs of billions of calls from the United States to as many as 116 countries.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Wednesday, asks a judge to declare the surveillance operation government officials say has now been halted, illegal, and to permanently block its reinstatement.

“It’s time to end the program, and bulk surveillance, once and for all,” an attorney with the Electronic Frontier FoundationNate Cardozo said.

The Justice Department admited in January that the DEA had been secretly gathering logs of Americans’ international phone calls and had been capturing virtually all calls from the United States to Mexico, Canada and most of the countries in South and Central America.

Human Rights Watch alleges in the suit that its records had been “collected, retained, searched, and disseminated without any suspicion of wrongdoing and without any judicial authorization or oversight.”

The group said that such sweeping surveillance violated its First and Fourth Amendment rights, and that it should be able to make international calls without having the government keep a record of them.

“Who we communicate with and when we communicate with them is often extraordinarily sensitive — and it’s information that we would never turn over to the government lightly,” Human Rights Watch General Counsel Dinah PoKempner said.

The Justice Department halted the data collection in September 2013 and later claimed that it deleted its database of call records.

The DEA surveillance program, known within the agency as USTO, was the government’s first known effort to collect electronic data about Americans in bulk, without regard to whether they were suspected of crimes.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said Tuesday that the DEA “is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.”

Even if that is true, which is highly unlikely, the DEA is still engaged in many controversial surveillance activities.

Recently released government documents show that over the last several years, the DEA has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of millions of vehicles around the country.

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.”

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.