DEA Program Causes Fuss

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It’s called the License Plate Reader initiative, or LPR for short. The DEA, along with partnerships with Customs and Border Patrol, as well as state government police agencies, is quietly installing remote license plates readers on drug smuggling routes. These units, which look like unobtrusive, generic black boxes, are designed to read, record and send data on cars passing their location.

The DEA is actively soliciting for contractors to provide and place these scanners across the US. Recently, citizens in Utah reacted negatively to having their license plates recorded and units that were slated to be installed there have temporarily been put on hold.

In Utah, there are already locations (such as Brigham Young University and downtown Salt Lake City) where scanners have been in place for some years. The latest initiative there would have placed them on I-15 and in so-called “scanner cars.” A scanner car is a police or other publicly owned vehicle with cameras mounted to scan plates automatically as it drives around. This is similar to how Google goes about storing pictures for its streetview service, only the system isn’t set to a certain pattern to map fixed locations.

The units take pictures of license plates and sends the data, along with GPS coordinates to a centralized database. This database can then be accessed to find out where a particular license plate appeared, and when. It can be used to built up a pattern of suspicious activity and also provide evidence when someone is brought into court.

Privacy advocates want to know what’s being done with this data and why. Does the cost to implement the initiative justify the predicted results? Won’t sophisticated drug smugglers either obscure their plates or switch them to block any tracking? Probably not. If a license plate appears altered, that in itself is probable cause for the police to pull that car over – something the drug dealers fear.

Since the system operates in nearly real time, a plate can be scanned and connected to state-level data bases to show whether there is an outstanding warrant or other crime linked to the vehicle. Police can then wait further down the highway and pull the suspect over when the car appears. The more units installed, the tighter the net.

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