DEA Planned to Surveil Arizona Gun Show Attendees

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is building a system to track motorists throughout the country. Part of the system likely relies on license plate readers. But this isn’t the first incident where the DEA planned to use license plate readers to track Americans. In 2009 the DEA was planning to use them to track attendees of gun shows in Arizona:

The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives collaborated on plans to monitor gun show attendees using automatic license plate readers, according to a newly disclosed DEA email obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act.

The April 2009 email states that “DEA Phoenix Division Office is working closely with ATF on attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the gun shows, to include programs/operation with LPRs at the gun shows.” The government redacted the rest of the email, but when we received this document we concluded that these agencies used license plate readers to collect information about law-abiding citizens attending gun shows. An automatic license plate reader cannot distinguish between people transporting illegal guns and those transporting legal guns, or no guns at all; it only documents the presence of any car driving to the event. Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.

Responding to inquiries about the document, the DEA said that the monitoring of gun shows was merely a proposal and was never implemented.

Call me skeptical but for some reason I don’t believe the DEA’s claim that it never implemented this strategy. But that is largely irrelevant now that it is implementing a nationwide system that will track motorists indiscriminately. What this proposal does show is that the technology, while indiscriminate in nature, can be used in a discriminatory manner.

Tracking attendees of gun shows is just one example of the type of discrimination widespread surveillance lends itself to. This technology could just as easily be used to identify attendees of a cannabis legalization or gay rights rally. Once you have that type of information in hand you can use it for either legal harassment or blackmail. Imagine the DEA using the fact that somebody attended a gun show and a cannabis legalization rally as probably cause to investigate somebody on the grounds that they may be a user of unlawful substances in possession of a firearm. Even if such evidence isn’t enough to bring charges it is enough to harass and badger the person.

This is the future George Orwell warned us about. I think we’ve reached the post of a boot stamping a human face — forever.