Local government officials have the ability to track individual drivers in the U.S. in real time and take pictures of the occupants of their vehicles, with new “truly Orwellian” technology purchased from companies like Vigilant Solutions, according to new documents uncovered by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
One of the documents is a ten page U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) memo stating that the technology behind the National License Plate Reading Initiative that was launched in December 2008 allows it to capture “vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Another May 2011 memo notes that this system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
These details complement findings by the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. Department of Justice has built a secret national database to track vehicle license plates around the country that now holds “hundreds of millions of records about motorists.”
While the program was originally designed to catch drug traffickers, it has now become a routine way for government agencies to find anyone that they suspect is associated with a crime. “Many state and local law-enforcement agencies are accessing the database for a variety of investigations, putting a wealth of information in the hands of local officials who can track vehicles in real time on major roadways,” writes Devlin Barrett in the Journal.
A December 2013 memo from the Milwaukee police explains how such technology works and the “standard operating procedures” for the use of the data gathered.
“(M)anufacturers and law enforcement agencies have argued that images of license plates cannot be used to identify individuals, and thus do not infringe on our individual privacy,” writes Sonia Roubini of the ACLU in an article that explain the significance of the newly released memos. “This argument is thin already, but it certainly doesn’t fly with regards to photographs of the driver or passengers inside of a vehicle – especially in the era of face recognition analytics.”