(by Devlin Barrett, The Wall Street Journal) WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S. — a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists — according to current and former officials and government documents.

The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking (‘asset forfeiture’), according to one government document. But the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings to killings to rape suspects, say people familiar with the matter.

Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand the database “throughout the United States,” according to one email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Many state and local law-enforcement agencies are accessing the database for a variety of investigations, according to people familiar with the program, putting a wealth of information in the hands of local officials who can track vehicles in real time on major roadways.

The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance. The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It is unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering.

A spokesman for Justice Department, which includes the DEA, said the program complies with federal law. ”It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking intensity,” the spokesman said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the government’s use of license-plate readers ”raises significant privacy concerns. The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government’s asset-forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern.”

The senator called for “additional accountability” and said Americans shouldn’t have to fear “their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive government database.”

The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.

The law-enforcement scanners are different from those used to collect tolls.

By 2011, the DEA had about 100 cameras feeding into the database, the documents show. On Interstate 95 in New Jersey, license-plate readers feed data to the DEA—giving law-enforcement personnel around the country the ability to search for a suspect vehicle on one of the country’s busiest highways. One undated internal document shows the program also gathers data from license-plate readers in Florida and Georgia.

“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. 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.”

License-plate readers are already used in the U.S. by companies to collect debts and repossess vehicles, and by local police departments to solve crimes.

In 2010, the DEA said in internal documents that the database aided in the seizure of 98 kilograms of cocaine, 8,336 kilograms of marijuana and the collection of $866,380. It also has been connected to the Amber Alert system, to help authorities find abducted children, according to people familiar with the program.

One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture (a controversial practice in which law-enforcement agencies seize cars, cash and other valuables from suspected criminals). The practice is increasingly coming under attack because of instances when law-enforcement officers take such assets without evidence of a crime. …

The national vehicle database program was launched in 2008 and opened to participating state and local authorities a year later. The initial focus was on tracking cars moving on or near the Southwest border, in order to follow the movements of drugs and drug money, according to officials and documents. Requests to search the database are handled by the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas, which is known as EPIC in law enforcement circles. EPIC is staffed around the clock to both take in and send out information about “hits” on requested license plates.

The effort began in border states like Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, but the goal has always been expansion, according to current and former federal officials and documents. Officials wouldn’t say how many other states are now feeding data into the system, citing concerns that disclosing such information could help criminals avoid detection.

Copyright 2015 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The Wall Street Journal. Visit the website at wsj .com.


1. The first paragraph of a news article should answer the questions who, what, where and when. List the who, what, where and when of this news item. (NOTE: The remainder of a news article provides details on the why and/or how.)

2. a) What was the primary goal of the DEA’s license-plate tracking program?
b) Why is asset forfeiture controversial?

3. How has the program expanded since it was launched in 2008?

4. Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed about the program?

5. In addition to the DEA, who uses the database?

6. What are the major concerns about the scope and expansion of this database?

7. How is the Justice Department defending the program?

8. The Senate Judiciary Committee provides oversight of the Department of Justice and the agencies under the Department’s jurisdiction, including the FBI, DEA and the Department of Homeland Security. What did Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy say about the revelation of the DOJ’s expanded license-plate reader program?

9. a) How does the DEA’s license-plate tracking program work?
b) In what states is it currently used?

10. Why won’t officials provide a list of ALL of the states that share their data with the DEA program?

11. What do you think: Do the benefits of the program (criminal asset forfeiture/confiscation of illegal drugs) outweigh the concerns (loss of privacy/government surveillance of all, even the innocent/chance of government abuse of power)? Explain your answer.


Also from The Wall Street Journal:

The federal program hasn’t always been embraced by states. At a 2012 hearing, Utah lawmakers balked when DEA officials sought to have license-plate readers in the state feed into the database—one of the few times the agency has provided even limited facts about the program. That same year, a DEA official made a general reference to the program at a congressional field hearing about the Southwest border, saying it was built to monitor and target vehicles used to transport bulk cash and other contraband.

Under questioning from Utah lawmakers, the agency said the program began with an effort to track drug shipments on the Southwest border, and the government wanted to add monitors on major drug-trafficking routes like Utah’s Interstate 15, in order to hunt a wide array of criminals. That alarmed privacy advocates, who noted at the time that the DEA’s map of major drug routes included most of the national highway system.

The agency has reduced the time it holds the data from two years to 3 months, according to a Justice Department spokesman.

The EPIC database allows any police agency that participates to quickly search records of many states for information about a vehicle. One May 2010 redacted email says: “Anyone can request information from our [license-plate reader] program, federal, state, or local, just need to be a vetted EPIC user.…”

The data are also shared with U.S. border officials, according to an undated memorandum of understanding between the DEA and Customs and Border Protection officials. That document shows the two agencies specifically said that lawmakers might never specifically fund the work, stating: “this in no way implies that Congress will appropriate funds for such expenditures.’’

The disclosure of the DEA’s license-plate reader database comes on the heels of other revelations in recent months about the Justice Department, as well as the agencies it runs, gathering data about innocent Americans as it searches for criminals.

In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives. Justice Department officials have said the program is legal.

Earlier this month, the DEA filed court documents indicating that for more than a decade it had gathered the phone records of Americans calling foreign countries, without judicial oversight, to sift through that data looking for drug suspects. That program was canceled in 2013.


THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE’S MISSION: (from the Department of Justice website:

  • to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law
  • to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic
  • to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime
  • to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior
  • and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans
(and from  As the largest law firm in the Nation, the Department of Justice serves as counsel for its citizens. It represents them in enforcing the law in the public interest. Through its thousands of lawyers, investigators, and agents, the Department plays the key role in protection against criminals and subversion, in ensuring healthy competition of business in our free enterprise system, in safeguarding the consumer, and in enforcing drug, immigration, and naturalization laws.The affairs and activities of the Department of Justice are generally directed by the Attorney General.  The Attorney General represents the U.S. in legal matters generally and gives advice and opinions to the President and to the heads of the executive departments of the Government when so requested. The Attorney General appears in person to represent the Government before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases of exceptional gravity or importance.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a United States federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Justice, tasked with combating drug smuggling and use within the United States.
  • The DEA is headed by an Administrator of Drug Enforcement appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
  • The Administrator reports to the Attorney General through the Deputy Attorney General.
  • With a budget exceeding 2.415 billion dollars, DEA employs over 10,800 people, including over 5,500 Special Agents.  (from wikipedia)
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