License plate data lets cops spy on US drivers at record rates

A new investigation shows the scale of surveillance on U.S. highways is more extensive than many previously imagined, thanks to a license plate database that allows federal and local law enforcement to watch cars and even drivers in real time.

According to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, the database was created by the Drug Enforcement Administration to track cartel activity, but it soon came to comprise millions of records that are regularly shared with police forces across the country:

The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists […]

The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities.

The database was created to help the DEA carry out civil forfeitures, a controversial practice that involves taking cash, vehicles and property from individuals suspected of ties to drug-related activity without basic due process. But soon all sorts of state and local law enforcement groups joined into the effort, tapping into the database for a wide variety of purposes, according to the Journal.

The high-tech cameras in question are mounted alongside major federal highways, and are reportedly augmented by various state and local license plate readers.

If the report is accurate, it represents a depressing convergence of two troubling legal trends in the United States: mass surveillance along with civil forfeiture.

While Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) has concerns over the widespread use of license plate databases last year, the DEA program appears to have been subject to little political or judicial oversight.

Meanwhile, in an apparent irony, the AP also reported Monday that law enforcement agencies are objecting to the use of a popular Google-owned app called Waze, which lets motorists see road and highway conditions in real time. The police object to a feature that displays where the police are present, arguing the feature is a threat to cops.

Feds pay woman $134K over fake Facebook profile used in drug case

The federal government has changed course in a drug investigation in which agents pulled a woman’s photos from her cell phone without her permission and used them to create a fake Facebook account that sought to trap drug dealers.

When Sondra Arquiett of New York sued over the incident last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency first claimed that she had granted implicit consent to use the photos, but now the government will instead pay Arquiett $134,000 to make the case go away.

The case first surfaced last year when BuzzFeed discovered court filings that described how, in 2010, law enforcement agents arrested Arquiett on drug charges and then surreptitiously took racy photos from her phone, including one showing her sitting astride a BMW in small shorts.

The DEA then created a Facebook profile purporting to be Arquiett and used it to contact at least one member of a drug ring. Arquiett only discovered the account when another friend asked her about it.

In her lawsuit, Arquiett sought $750,000, claiming invasion of privacy, violation of her constitutional rights and emotional distress.

The federal government’s decision to settle the case was likely wise in light of increased attention paid by the Supreme Court and activists to privacy violations involving cell phones and social media.

According to the AP, which reported the settlement, the Arquiett deal does not specifically preclude the DEA from using such tactics in the future; however, a spokesperson did say the Justice Department was meeting with law enforcement to “make clear the necessity of protecting the privacy and safety of third parties in every aspect of our criminal investigations.”

Facebook has also stated that it does not approve of law enforcement creating fake profiles.

Anti-drug Hemisphere program gives DEA data on calls passing through AT&T switches

The New York Times continues the surveillance theme with a scoop about a project called Hemisphere, which involves the collection and long-term retention of phone metadata by AT&T(s t) in order to aid local and federal anti-drug law enforcement efforts. The length of the retention time (as much as 26 years) far outstrips anything the NSA is doing. It strikes me as notable that the biggest mass surveillance operations are being carried out in the name of unwinnable, unending wars, namely those on terror and drugs.