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U.S. Justice Department Used Traffic Cameras For Surveillance

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

As per a recent report published by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Justice Department used traffic cameras installed on major highways to spy on Americans. The details of the secret surveillance program, which was initiated by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) in 2008, were uncovered by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through Freedom of Information Act requests. Although the program was originally meant to combat the drug trafficking menace near the US-Mexico border, it was later expanded to cover many other states and allow the local authorities to track vehicles involved in many other offences (including kidnapping and murder).

As per the details made available to ACLU, the Justice Department tracked vehicles through license plate scanners and created a national database that contained details about millions of cars. The program not only allowed the local and state authorities to track vehicles in real-time but it also made it possible to analyze traffic patterns and driving habits of citizens. The program captured detailed travel information including time, location and direction details through the traffic cameras installed on highways. And if the report published by Wall Street Journal is to be believed, the program was even used to capture the identity of drivers and co-passengers through high resolution images captured by the cameras.

The documents also show that the Justice Department stored the captured information for as long as three months. The DEA used to store the information captured through traffic cameras for up to two years but it has decreased that limit now. However, this practice does raise several uncomfortable questions about the need to capture information of innocent citizens and storing it for such a long period.

Although the documents obtained by ACLU were heavily scrubbed (date and other information were not included in the released information), they do reveal that the DEA set up license plate scanners in many states like California, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Florida and New Mexico. The captured information was subsequently stored and used by the Justice Department for its own surveillance purposes. Unfortunately, the documents do not disclose the number of states using the program. As per the report, the officials refused to divulge this information since it could allow criminals to evade capture and arrest.

Aside from real-time vehicle tracking, the program had another important goal: “asset forfeiture”. As per the provisions available under the program, the authorities were free to seize assets including cash, valuables and the vehicle itself from suspected criminals. As it can be imagined, these powers can easily be misused to seize assets from even innocent citizens.

The disclosures made by ACLU and Wall Street Journal have evoked a sharp response from privacy advocates and civil liberty groups. Jan Stanley, policy analyst with ACLU, has condemned the practice and said that any database that captures location information of innocent Americans raises some very serious privacy questions. The whole episode once again shows that the American authorities are leaving no stone unturned in capturing personal details of American citizens.

March 23, 2015

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