The federal government has been storing "hundreds of millions" of records about American drivers as part of a national database documenting vehicles around the country, said a Wall Street Journal report.
The Justice Department has been collecting the records to track vehicles nationwide, based on government documents and interviews with current and former officials.
While the program initially started to fight drug trafficking by seizing assets including cars, the database run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reportedly grown to watch for vehicles related to other crimes. Officials had earlier publicly announced that vehicle tracking was used near the Mexican border to combat drug cartels; however, the database's expansion throughout the country appears to have just come to light.
"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,'' a Justice Department spokesman told the Journal.
The program gathers detailed data that includes time, driving direction, location and sometimes images of drivers and passengers that can allow them to be identified. The expansion is intended to help officials track down vehicles that may be associated with crimes ranging from kidnappings to killings to rape, sources said.
The database can reportedly be accessed by state and local law enforcement, giving local officials a detailed tool to follow vehicles in real time on nearby roads and highways.
This latest revelation raises questions about privacy for everyday Americans as well as government accountability when it comes to surveillance.
"It's unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. "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.''