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In our opinion: DEA plan to scan license plates raises concerns

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 6:21 p.m. MDT

DEA Task Force remove meth lab from a storage unit at Red-E Storage in Bluffdale in 2005. The DEA and two sheriffs are seeking permission from the Utah legislature to scan the license plates of every care traveling on certain portions of I-15 in Utah to help catch drug traffickers. (Michael Brandy, File, Deseret News) DEA Task Force remove meth lab from a storage unit at Red-E Storage in Bluffdale in 2005. The DEA and two sheriffs are seeking permission from the Utah legislature to scan the license plates of every care traveling on certain portions of I-15 in Utah to help catch drug traffickers. (Michael Brandy, File, Deseret News)

Federal drug agents are seeking permission to set up a network of scanning devices to record the license plate numbers of cars traveling on a stretch of Interstate 15 known as a corridor for drug trafficking.

The proposal comes just as the DEA announced record seizures of methamphetamine en route to the Wasatch Front from smuggling operations based in Mexico. The timing may be coincidental, but the seizures certainly validate law enforcement's concern that Utah's primary north-south transportation artery is a prolific narcotics pipeline.

While the scanning devices may prove to be an effective tool in detecting and intercepting drug runners, the proposal raises legitimate concerns over the large cache of data the machines will gather and how exactly it will be managed.

It is the latest example of how the proliferation of digital technology is allowing for an accumulation of information on the routine activities of private citizens. Just because such information can be gathered and stored, doesn't mean it should be.

The government insists the license plate data will be kept for only two years and used only in the context of criminal investigations. Not to doubt the sincerity of that assurance, but we are not entirely confident there are adequate technical or legal protections against the mishandling of all of the information Americans are now routinely giving up about themselves.

For instance, the state's information technology apparatus is still reeling from embarrassment over a "security breach" that allowed volumes of Medicaid-related records involving hundreds of thousands of Utahns to fall into potentially malicious hands.

In recent years, civil libertarians have raised frequent warnings about the sheer number of governmental and private enterprises involved in domestic intelligence gathering, many of them the offspring of initiatives tied to Homeland Security. The 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report by the Washington Post documented an enormous rise in domestic surveillance since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

According to the report, called "Top Secret America," more than 1,200 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private companies work on programs related to "counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence."

Such numbers carry ominous implications.

The DEA argues that its license plate scanning capabilities are already in use along the Mexican border in four states. But monitoring activities around an international border is different than monitoring the millions of motorists who use an interstate freeway.

For the proposal to fly, the DEA needs the permission of the Utah Legislature. Some legislators have already expressed concerns over intrusion of privacy.

Should the proposal come to the point of full legislative deliberation, we hope our elected leaders will carefully balance the value such an apparatus may have in fighting the scourge of drug trafficking, against the prospect of opening yet another door for agencies to gather more information about citizens who are simply going about their daily business.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company