DEA Plans to Expand License Plate Surveillance Program

Monday, October 8, 2018
By Paul Martin

By Michael Maharrey
OCTOBER 8, 2018

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) plans to expand a surveillance program that tracks the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.

According to federal contracting data, the DEA will expand the footprint of its license plate tracking program with automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) connected to trailer-mounted speed displays. According to the contract announcement, the DEA will make a sole source award to RU2 Systems Inc.

RU2 Systems Radar Speed Display Trailers, are retrofitted as mobile LPR platforms. These platforms are in high demand by DEA division offices across the country, and will be utilized on a continuous basis for constant and targeted LPR acquisition efforts in rural and difficult to cover areas where LPR fixed or other mobile applications are not effective or available.

Quartz also uncovered apparently related contracts awarded to small machine shops in California and Virginia to conceal the automatic license plate readers within the signs.

In practice, this means those “check your speed” digital displays police set up along the highway may well record your license plate, location and time.

The DEA launched its license plate tracking program in 2008. It didn’t become public knowledge until 2012 when an agent revealed the existence of the program during a congressional hearing. It wasn’t widely reported on until 2015. As reported in the Wall Street Journal that year, the DEA tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.

The speed-sign-mounted ALPRs represent a significant expansion of the program. In the past, the agency has primarily relied on state and local law enforcement agencies to provide the data for this program. The DEA’s fiscal year 2019 budget confirms this, describing the program as “a federation of independent federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement license plate readers linked into a cooperative system, designed to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to interdict drug traffickers, money launderers or other criminal activities on high drug and money trafficking corridors and other public roadways throughout the U.S.”

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