Tracking Vehicles on NJ Turnpike Raises Privacy Concerns

By David Cruz

A report this week that the Justice Department has been building a national database to track hundreds of millions of vehicles across the country has raised concerns about privacy. The Wall Street Journal reports that the domestic intelligence-gathering program stores records about motorists’ movements. All of this pretty much in secret.

“Why is government doing it? Any time government wants to do something, one has to ask the question. Why? And when they’re collecting information about the people one has to be very careful about that,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.

The existence of the program came to light after Freedom of Information Act inquiries by the American Civil Liberties Union. Jeanne LoCicero is with the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU.

“What we’ve learned is that the Drug Enforcement Agency has a massive surveillance program involving automated license plate readers, and these license plate readers take pictures of license plates by the millions of them. The technology is really advanced on how many they can capture, so everyone driving on the New Jersey Turnpike past their license plate readers is being captured,” said LoCicero, ACLU-NJ deputy legal director.

The program started in 2008, the Justice Department says, as a way to track people trying getting into the country illegally but over the years expanded to include drug runners and others as a way to help the agency with asset forfeitures. Initially employed in border states only, the program expanded to other states, including New Jersey.

Whether this program is tracking bad guys running drugs or worse, it’s also tracking information about where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going and even who you’re traveling with, whether you like it or not.

“There might well be legitimate purposes to use this information but part of the problem is that the public has been cut out of this conversation and so we really need transparency about why they’re using this program, how they’re using it, the scope of it. What are the reasons? We can’t do any good assessment of whether this is appropriate without having a public conversation about it,” said LoCicero.

Although New Jersey has reportedly been participating in the program for years, none of the state lawmakers we spoke to today knew anything about it. A state police spokesperson acknowledged today that the department has access to a database complied by several license plate readers around the state. But couldn’t confirm if any of those belong to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“Government is not inherently beneficial. It’s not inherently nice, or what have you. Government is, at best, a necessary evil. And you can understand why they’d like to look at situations like this in a case of the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s kinda questionable why you’d wanna be keeping track of everybody on the New Jersey Turnpike,” Patrick Carroll said.

The ACLU says it’s studying the information they’ve gotten and will try to find out more about why and what our government needs to know where millions of us are going.