If you’ve been to a gun show in the past few years, there’s a chance that local law enforcement officials recorded your license plate number and reported it to federal agents.
This is especially true if you attended a gun show in a state along the U.S./Mexico border, according to a report Sunday in the Wall Street Journal.
From the report:
Emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency crafted a plan in 2010 to use license-plate readers—devices that record the plate numbers of all passing cars—at gun shows in Southern California, including one in Del Mar, not far from the Mexican border.
Agents then compared that information to cars that crossed the border, hoping to find gun smugglers, according to the documents and interviews with law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the operation.
The investigative tactic concerns privacy and guns-rights advocates, who call it an invasion of privacy. The law-enforcement officials say it is an important and legal tool for pursuing dangerous, hard-to-track illegal activity.
There is no indication the gun-show surveillance led to any arrests or investigative leads, but the officials didn’t rule out that such surveillance may have happened elsewhere. The agency has no written policy on its use of license-plate readers and could engage in similar surveillance in the future, they said.
This is the first time we’ve heard about efforts to gather license plate data specific to gun show attendance— but stories about federal law enforcement’s desire to expand the use of license plate readers are plenty.
Last year, we reported on a similar DEA license plate tracking program. What was designed to monitor vehicles with suspected ties to drug traffic quickly began ballooning into a massive roadway surveillance program.
And federal officials made no secret that they wished to expand the program, which was originally relegated to border areas such as Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, into a nationwide license plate tracking network.
In addition to federal efforts, local police departments throughout the nation are also increasingly likely to use the tracking technology for their own investigative purposes. This local information-gathering often goes on with little oversight and no restrictions to limit the sharing of data between agencies across all levels of law enforcement, hence federal agencies’ ability to ask local law enforcement to handle information gathering at gun shows.
But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are pushing back, noting that blanket surveillance of gun show attendees is unconstitutional.
ACLU lawyer Jay Stanley told WSJ that federal agents surveilling people at gun shows in border states are assuming that anyone who buys firearms and also occasionally crosses the border—both legal activities—is “inherently suspicious.”
Even John Chigos, CEO of PlateSmart Technologies, Inc., who only stands to benefit from increased government use of the readers, told the newspaper that targeting gun show attendees is “an abuse of the technology.’’
“I think this was a situation that shows we need to establish policies for license-plate readers, like any new technology,” he said.
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