The Justice Department has collected hundreds of millions of records using traffic cameras to track vehicles in real-time as part of a "secret domestic intelligence surveillance program," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, under the watch of the Justice Department, began the program in 2008 to help combat drug trafficking near the U.S. border with Mexico. But, the Journal reported Monday, the agency has been working for years to expand the database “throughout the United States."
Officials wouldn't say how many states are participating in the program, citing the risk that disclosing such information would help criminals avoid being caught. According to the Journal, the agency has used the program to go beyond its original goal of catching drug traffickers: Officials have used the database to track down those suspected of rape, kidnapping and murder.
The program uses cameras installed along major highways to capture the time, location and direction of moving vehicles. Many of the cameras even allow authorities to identify drivers and passengers using high-tech visual images. Documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal also show that DEA authorities have tapped into the license plate readers used by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to create a more extensive network of information.
“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 with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The revelation comes amid the much-heated debate over the government's surveillance practices, triggered by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.
Last week, it was reported that federal law enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI had used motion sensing radars to "see" inside homes, a technique the Justice Department said it uses to prepare for potentially dangerous suspect encounters.
One of Snowden's latest revelations also came last week when it was revealed that Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent to the NSA, allegedly tracked iPhone users who synced their phones with their computers.
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