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Thanks to Government, That Road Sign Might Be Watching You

Should each and every intersection you stop at or drive through be a potential federal surveillance site? The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) certainly seems to think so. The DEA is currently expanding its use of license plate readers (LPRs) in digital road signs, which is sure to have an impact on drivers’ basic expectation of privacy.

The agency sees this program as a collaboration between “federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement license plate readers” to curb the actions of drug traffickers, money launderers, and other criminals. The agency installs these cameras in digital street signs on roads that it believes are popular with lawbreakers.  

Such actions are not unique to the DEA. Police agencies share the data they obtain from LPRs with hundreds of different local, state, and federal agencies. These agencies range from police departments to Customs and Border Patrol to the U.S. Park Service to the U.S. Postal Service. For example, the San Diego Police Department is reportedly sharing its license plate data with around 900 different federal, state, and local agencies.  

Before these agencies can use their LPRs, though, the roads they select must have use for the signs in which they are installed. Daniel Herriges, an urban planner and content manager at Strong Towns, observes that “road design is, in fact, often the biggest underlying cause of unsafe speed in cities.” Because traffic engineers design roads to be forgiving, it creates the perception that they are less risky. Motorists then respond “by driving faster or less attentively,” Herriges says.

In response to such unsafe driving, communities like Albuquerque, New Mexico, have been requesting traffic calming and enforcement measures through safe street initiatives, including signs that warn drivers. This unwittingly provides an outlet for data collection.

Herriges suggests that rather than increase enforcement, roads should be rethought entirely. “Addressing speed through design rather than through enforcement carries numerous advantages,” he says. “For one, it’s more effective—studies consistently show that most drivers disregard posted speed limits.” That means traffic engineering could be the best defense of Fourth Amendment rights in terms of license plate data collection—except, of course, for a constitutional challenge in court.

No federal or state courts have made any rulings on the constitutionality of an LPR program as vast as the DEA’s. Instead, the judiciary has ruled that “single-instance database checks of license plate numbers” do not constitute searches under the Fourth Amendment. The courts have argued this is the case because license plates are in “plain view.” However, the DEA’s massive database, and the sharing they engage in with other agencies, clearly exceed the “single-instance” that courts have ruled constitutional.

“Law enforcement likes to claim that because license plates are in public view that creating massive ALPR networks aren’t very different than stationing cops at certain locations and having them write down the information by hand,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “So far, there haven’t been many challenges to this in the courts, except on the state level. That said, policymakers have been pursuing (and passing) new restrictions on both sides of the aisle.”

Similar to the National Security Agency’s vast metadata collection program, the sharing of license plate information can paint a very holistic picture of who a person is and what their day-to-day life looks like. It can be as mundane as a person visiting his parents or it can be more intrusive—local police could share the data of everyone who visits a certain immigration lawyer with Customs and Border Patrol, for example.

I am definitely concerned that agencies may target people by searching ALPR data for visitors to immigration lawyers, medical clinics serving undocumented people, churches specializing in foreign-language services, or locations where day laborers gather,” Maass said. He added that DHS routinely uses “questionable tactics” when detaining undocumented immigrants.

The DEA expanding its LPR program would further erode Americans’ basic expectation of privacy, and do nothing to make America’s streets any safer. It’s time to stop throwing more money and resources at the failed war on drugs.

Dan King is a Young Voices contributor, journalist, and digital communications professional based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared at Reason, The American Conservative, The Week and the Washington Examiner.

Ethan A. Greene is a Young Voices alumnus and master’s student of City and Regional Planning at Clemson University. His writing has appeared in Strong Towns, Planetizen, Spiked!, and the Washington Times.

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