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Big Brother Is Watching Your Car—in Real Time

A nationwide system, long kept secret, tracks cars and sometimes is used to seize them as booty

1 min read
Big Brother Is Watching Your Car—in Real Time
Illustration: Getty Images

Government narcotics agents have secretly built a database of “hundreds of millions of records” on the movement of cars in the United States, the Wall Street Journal reports. The information, originally meant to help steer police toward suspects in drug-smuggling cases, is now used in kidnapping cases and other crimes.

An important point of the program is to confiscate cars and other assets of people suspected of crimes. Such civil forfeiture, as it is called, is controversial in part because it has far fewer safeguards against abuse than punishments made in criminal cases. Whether the car-tracking intelligence program is supervised by the courts remains unclear, the Journal says.

It had already been known that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracked the license plates of cars coming in from Mexico. The news is that the agency, together with state and local authorities, is also conducting surveillance  on major highways elsewhere in the country.

According to the Journal,  highway cameras not only note the time, direction and location of vehicles but also record “visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.” Earlier, the agency had held on to such data for two years, but it says it now deletes it after three months.

The newspaper says it bases its account on interviews with government officials and on government documents, some supplied by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.

In scope and intent the program resembles another recently uncovered surveillance program of the U.S. Marshalls Service, one that uses airplanes to scoop up information on cell phones across the country. Both the DEA and the Marshalls Service are part of the U.S. Justice Department.

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Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

Peer-to-peer file sharing would make the Internet far more efficient

12 min read
An illustration of a series
Carl De Torres

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

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