Technology does awesome things. It lets us communicate with loved ones, no matter where they are on the planet. It lets us collaborate with colleagues and entrepreneurs thousands of miles away. And of course, it lets us lounge on the sofa in our threadbare, monogrammed Snuggies and order brand-new monogrammed Snuggies.
Technology also lets people spy on us -- people like repo men, county officials, and according to an article at The Atlantic, the friendly folks at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
For years, the DEA has been using license plate readers, or LPRs, to track the the movement of automobiles in cities and states across the country. In doing so, the agency's goal is to keep an eye on drug dealers in the hopes of catching them in the act of breaking the law. That, in a nutshell, it what counts as a comprehensive strategy in the DEA's much-hyped War on Drugs.
There are, of course, at least four problems with the DEA's approach to the War on Drugs and surveillance:
1. The War on Drugs isn't winnable. As a federal initiative, the War on Drugs officially began with President Nixon in 1971. Over the past 44 years, the DEA has had markedly few victories. Some argue that the legalization of recreational marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington may finally achieve some of the things that the DEA has been hoping for -- though ironically, the DEA remains opposed to legalization efforts.
2. The War on Drugs can't end. As we've learned all-too-well over the past decade or so, waging war against a concept (e.g. the War on Terror) or a faceless, borderless state (e.g. the Taliban, ISIS) rarely reaches a well-defined point where we can confidently say, "Mission accomplished!" The War on Drugs is just as ambiguous -- if not moreso, because there's so much gray area. And so, it's doomed to continue until federal bigwigs 86 it.
3. The War on Drugs has eroded privacy protections. Technology and war go hand in hand -- that's why so many high-tech innovations, including the internet you're using right now -- began as military projects. And while we'd never say that the War on Drugs is the sole reason for our changing definition of "privacy", there's no denying that it's given government agencies more authority to eavesdrop on our phone calls, read our emails, and track our driving habits.
4. There are no best-practices in place for LPR users to follow. Some cities and towns wipe the hard drives associated with their LPRs every six months, others do it every year or two, others not at all. As a result, motorists are subject to a patchwork of policies, some of which afford little to no privacy at all.
The most frustrating part of it all is that, once privacy protections disappear, it's very hard to win them back. Even if the DEA ended the War on Drugs tomorrow, policies would remain in place to allow federal, state, and local agencies to keep tabs on us.
There's nothing to be done at this point, other than to remain vigilant and work to keep these intrusions to a minimum -- an uphill battle to say the least, but one that, unlike the War on Drugs, seems worth fighting.