We’ve talked a lot about government surveillance and control of air travelers, and occasionally about its extension to bus and train travel. (Our FOIA request about this to Amtrak remains unanswered and several months overdue for a response.)
A year ago, when the Department of Homeland Security cancelled a request for bids from commercial vendors to supply vehicle location logs compiled from automated (optical character recognition) license-plate readers, we pointed out that the DHS didn’t need to buy this information from commercial data aggregators, since it already had it available from government sources. In fact, as we noted then, the DHS had already given official notice of the inclusion of license-plate location logs in DHS databases about both US and foreign citizens (while claiming that a license plate number isn’t a “personal identifier”).
New documents released to the ACLU in response to FOIA requests and reported by the Wall Street Journal (paywalled article; NPR interview with the WSJ reporter on the story) confirm our suspicions: As early as 2009, a “National LPR Initiative” was compiling data from license-plate readers operated by the DHS and other Federal, state, and local government agencies to track both vehicles and their occupants in real time. (More background and additional documents from the ACLU’s previous FOIA requests regarding license-plate readers; related documents released to EPIC and to EFF.)
Many of the Federal government’s license-plate readers are operated by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division of the DHS, under its assertion of authority to conduct unlimited “border” searches anywhere within 100 miles of a US land border or seacoast. But the master database is being compiled and maintained by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and used primarily to intercept domestic commerce in drugs and to target vehicles, cash, and other property that can be seized under “civil forfeiture” laws.
This isn’t, of course, the first time we’ve seen CBP’s assertion of a “Constitution-free zone” in coastal and border regions where the majority of the US population lives misused as the basis for surveillance of, and interference with, domestic travel. Sadly, we don’t expect that this will be the last such instance, either.