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Big-picture thinking from the DHS: A national license-plate tracking system

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 10:04am
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

Whenever you pass a license plate scanner, your whereabouts and personal information are likely being collected by the law enforcement agency of the state or municipality you’re in. Now, Washington is tipping its hand that it wants that information, too.

In mid-February, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) canceled plans by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, an arm of the DHS, to develop a national license plate tracking system. ICE had already begun soliciting companies to compile a database comprised of information gleaned from both law-enforcement license plate readers as well as commercial readers that are typically found in shopping mall parking lots. ICE maintains the plan is to catch fugitive illegal immigrants, but there is little to indicate that law abiding citizens won’t get caught up in the system. According to a Washington Post article, the bid solicitation was announced without the knowledge of the ICE leadership.

When I ‘wrote about this topic last year, license plate scanners were gaining widespread use at the state and local level, and a patchwork of differing laws arose to attempt to regulate how long license plate information is stored. However, the ICE’s plans included information from commercial license plate reader entities that operate nationwide, so it would have been quite possible to collect a far more massive volume of information on ordinary, law abiding drivers than would be possible with databases belonging to a single state or municipality. And, a large-scale Federal database would not be subject to local laws covering how long the data can be stored. According to The Electronic Frontier Foundation, DHS “wants to be able to communicate with other users, “‘establish Lists submissions, flag license plates, and conduct searches anonymously.’” If ICE agents can create hot lists, flag plates, conduct searches and discuss and share data anonymously, meaningful oversight of the program will be impossible. There will be nothing to prevent the kind of racial, ethnic and religious targeting.”

Read: Widespread license plate scanning presents an open road for abuse

The DHS’ cancellation of the program after learning that the ICE leadership knew nothing of the project, continues a pattern in government that we just saw with Ohio’s facial recognition program last summer. Officials only see the wonder the technology has to offer and think only of implementation without even letting the higher authorities – let alone the public who are forced to pay for it – know what they are going to do or else an honest debate might break out and safeguards or oversight result – even a “no” from a wary public. Sadly I expect this program to turn up at a later date, laced with assurances that it won’t be abused, and put into place while no one is looking.

Read: Ohio tries to put a good face on its unsettling new surveillance practice

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