I distinctly remember, when I was a kid, watching an episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, during which Marlin Perkins lounged safely in a camp chair, while Jim Fowler put a lion in a headlock, bit a hole in the cat's ear, and then attached a tag for easy tracking. Well, it went something like that, anyway. It's been a long time. Too bad Fowler didn't work for the DEA, or even a biggish police department. He could have saved himself a little sweat and blood by tracking Americans instead of animals, by the simple expedient of setting cameras by the side of the road to capture license plates as they speed by.
The ACLU reports on a DEA plan to scan each and every license plate that passes along Interstate 15 in Utah, with the intention of storing the data for future reference.
The DEA wants to capture the license plates of all vehicles traveling along Interstate 15 in Utah, and store that data for two years at their facility in Northern Virginia. And, as a DEA official told Utah legislators at a hearing this week (attended by ACLU of Utah staff and covered in local media), these scanners are already in place on "drug trafficking corridors" in California and Texas and are being considered for Arizona as well. The agency is also collecting plate data from unspecified other sources and sharing it with over ten thousand law enforcement agencies around the nation.
With the DEA involved, of course the up-front rationale for the plan is to track and catch drug smugglers. But even as the DEA and two cooperating sheriffs presented the plan to the Utah legislature, they allowed mission creep to seep in immediately, suggesting that the data could be used against kidnappers and violent criminals.
The Salt Lake Tribune says the idea elicited some discomfort from lawmakers:
That, however, wasn't the concern of skeptical legislators on the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee. They were worried about the DEA storing the data for two years and who would be able to access it.
"It's not against the law to drive down I-15 from Utah to Nevada to gamble," said Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, "but there are a lot of Utahns that would be pretty embarrassed by that."
Committee members asked for more information about the scanners and the data storage and agreed to discuss the issue at its June meeting.
The chairman of the committee hearing the DEA's pitch wound things up by cautioning a DEA representative, "A lot of us in Utah don't trust the federal government."
The scanners, which are already in place in California and Texas, and are being considered for placement near Kingman and Flagstaff, in Arizona, record the license plate, the GPS coordinates and the direction of travel. That's quite a lot of information for government officials to record and store for future reference. Once in the system, license plates aren't just tracked — they can also trigger alerts, if they've been put on a list to be stopped.
Last year, the Washington Post pointed out that automated license plate scanners, costing about $20,000 each, are already in place all around the nation's capital.
Scores of cameras across the city capture 1,800 images a minute and download the information into a rapidly expanding archive that can pinpoint people's movements all over town. …
More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time, helping police pinpoint stolen cars and fleeing killers. But the program quietly has expanded beyond what anyone had imagined even a few years ago.
With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles.
A 2010 study (PDF) from George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy revealed that "[o]ver a third of large police agencies have already adopted [license plate recognition]" even though there's been little discussion of its use, or of community concerns, and "the question still remains as to whether this technology is more effective in reducing, preventing, or even detecting crime."