If something can be spied upon, bet that the American government is already spying on it.
After filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered a secret Drug Enforcement Administration program that tracks drivers in real-time using license plate scanners. It launched in 2008, and uses DEA-owned scanners and devices used by local law enforcement to create a nationwide database that catalogs hundreds of millions of cars and "identifies the travel patterns" of drivers.
Though the documents were heavily censored by the government—and many had their dates redacted—they showed that the DEA set up at least 100 of their own scanners in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. If you're wondering why the DEA and not the NSA is running the program, that's because it was originally meant to be a weapon in the War on Drugs. The program initially monitored vehicles used by drug cartels near the border, but it expanded to allow local and state officials to tap into the database and track vehicles involved in kidnappings, rape, and murder across the country. A scanner on a police vehicle can collect information on more than 14,000 plates during a single shift.
According to the documents, one of the tracking program's main goals is "asset forfeiture," which lets agencies keep "cars, cash and other valuables" they come across when stopping suspected criminals. "Criminal" becomes a flexible word in a lot of these cases. Here's John Oliver's segment on the abuse of civil forfeiture:
"It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy," the ACLU's Jay Stanley told the Wall Street Journal. "People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret."
Luckily the DEA shortened the time it keeps the information from two years to three months. But if a driver isn't flagged for committing a crime, why not delete this data immediately? This is the same agency that admitted to keeping phone data for 15 years without any judicial oversight. During that time they "recreated" trails of evidence to hide the fact that they used phone data to get it.
You might feel it's not a big deal if the government knows you went to Target everyday this week, but don't forget that this is just one slice of information they collect—which already includes phone metadata and GPS-tracking. This information adds up and can paint a more revealing profile of you than anything you've ever put on Facebook.
It's completely legal to record things that are in public view, like a license plate on a car traveling down a freeway, but it's creepy to think that your location is being logged and can be viewed by a collection of law enforcement agencies. While using this technology to find kidnappers, rapists, and murderers might seem like a good benefit, surveillance programs are usually clogged with abuse.
Edward Snowden's NSA leaks revealed that agencies constantly exploited their power. In one case, Snowden saw employees at the NSA sharing images they intercepted of naked women. NSA agents also regularly collected data on Internet users who had nothing to do with illegal activities, or used their tools to spy on love interests. It isn't clear if any court oversees the license plate program, and none of the documents say how much it's even working.
It's a little ironic that cops recently asked Google to disable Waze, an app that lets users tag the locations of cop cars, but they're cool with using a program to track millions of drivers.
Just wait until Wi-Fi becomes a regular thing in cars. That'll be fun.