With this new Era of Information we can surely conclude that almost everything that Orwell predicted in his bestselling novel came true. Secret documents reveal that the US government known worldwide for it’s big brother complex has been tracking the whereabouts of millions of American motorists.
Using a tools called license-plate readers, federal authorities without having to comply with restrictions to some form of privacy, have collected and stored at least 343 million records that detail the location of drivers around the country and stored them in a new national database.
The American Civil Liberties Union unveiled this project through obtained documents in which it also state that the Justice Department officials had kept the program a secret until disclosing it earlier this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU.
In its defence, the Justice Department had said that the license-plate readers were mostly used along the border with Mexico in drug-fighting efforts. But as the documents reveal, the program is far more reaching.
As you might assume the document is heavily redacted, but even though it was shown that the Drug Enforcement Administration, which falls within the DOJ bureaucracy, has been running the program since 2008, known as the National License Plate Recognition Initiative.
The program was apparently created to enhance “intelligence and information sharing” and it uses data from both DEA-owned readers as well as those administered by other agencies.
On the other hand the Justice Department doesn’t think there’s any kind of breach in the privacy of the motorists. Officials say they’ve gained a valuable asset in their fight against illicit drugs, but still, the license-plate readers also capture data on law-abiding drivers.
Of course we also have the NSA collecting phone records and emails of millions of innocent Americans. Privacy advocates fear the national license-plate data program is just another surveillance tool that’s being used by the government to monitor the activities of ordinary citizens.
It’s not known what percentage of the data has been used to catch criminals and what percentage relates to innocent people and their uninsured motorist property damage, but previous research from the Electronic Frontier Foundation has estimated that 99.8 percent of license-plate reader data is not used for criminal investigations.
Of course, license-plate readers are merely one technology of many available for surveillance on drivers and their vehicles. If that’s not enough cars can be tracked via satellite tracking program, a turn-by-turn navigation feature that is a standard feature practice by many automakers.
The US Government Accountability Office released a report last year that recommended automakers be more transparent in how this information is used and shared.
Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that all new cars contain black boxes that provide data in 15 separate categories. While that information is stored aboard the car, there are growing concerns that data could be accessed as vehicles move into a future where all cars are connected.