DEA License Plate Tracking Used on Millions of Americans, Raising Privacy Concerns

January 27, 2015 Updated: January 27, 2015

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been secretly recording the license plates of millions of motorists and storing the info in a national database built by the Department of Justice, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The system works by using cameras along roadsides that sometimes not only capture license plate numbers, but also the faces of drivers.

Authorities have previously said publicly the project was focused on areas close to the Mexican border to help with the apprehension of drug smugglers. It may have started that way, but expanded later. 

Numerous interviews with current and former government officials and new documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and reviewed by the WSJ, confirm the existence of the widespread the program. 

This data has been used to arrest people who have committed non-drug related crimes, and it is now accessible to a variety of state and local agencies in their efforts to track people down vehicles associated with other crimes, such as rape suspects, kidnappers, and killers.

According to the WSJ, some states and counties provide motorist data to a central governmental facility in Texas. The official name is El Paso Intelligence Center, nicknamed EPIC by law enforcement agencies.

EPIC is a huge data center that compiles motorist movements from cooperating parts of the country. Those who provide license plate data to EPIC can search the database for vehicles day or night.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told WSJ reporter Deborah Solomon that this program “raises significant privacy concerns,” and he is demanding accountability.  

“Their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database,” Leahy said. 

“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,” according to a Justice Department spokesman quoted by WSJ.