DEA takes photos of drivers and stores them in mass database

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

February 11, 2015

A couple of weeks ago we reported on how the United States Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) is collecting a huge database of every number plate in the country, and is using this to tack car owners’ movement across the country.

It now seems, however, that appalling as this attack on innocent citizens’ fundamental right to privacy is, the situation in fact much worse. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) , who was responsible for publishing details about the DEA number plate collection program following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has released more documents showing the DEA not only photos and collects number plates, but also uses Automated License Plate Recorders (ALPRs), to capture pictures of car drivers and occupants.

Although both are heavily redacted, the two crucial pieces of evidence for this are:

  ALPR Doc 1

This 2009 document makes it clear that ‘the requester’ can provided with ‘photo of visible vehicle occupants’

ALPR Doc 2

This 2011 document again makes it clear vehicle occupants are being photographed

As the ACLU noted when releasing the documents that,

Occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated.

It then goes on to list a further four pieces of evidence showing that ALPRs are routinely used to collect not just license plate numbers.

This is an already alarming situation, but it gets worse when advances in facial recognition technology are considered, and especially so when we learn that one the DEA’s primary suppliers of ALPR technology, California based Vigilant Solutions, has developed an app that integrates facial recognitions features,

‘In addition to the license plate recognition capture and analytic tools, the app also features Vigilant’s powerful FaceSearch® facial recognition which analyzes over 350 different vectors of the human face. The FaceSearch element of Mobile Companion allows officers in the field to snap a photo of a willing subject and have their face matched against a gallery of over 13 million pre-populated mugshot and registered sex offender images as well as any other images that the agency uploads into its own gallery.’

ALPR Vigilant app

The ACLU notes that some police departments do maintain care to only photo cars from the rear in order to avoid being able to identify occupants, but concludes that,

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that most law enforcement agencies are taking such measures.

As far as we are aware the DEA has yet to comment, but privacy activists are unsuprisingly concerned. Senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, Clark Neily, commented on the DEA’s mass surveillance program,

It’s deeply concerning and creepy. We’re Americans. We drive a lot.

Exclusive Offer
Get NordVPN for only