The Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to set up a nationwide license-plate scanning system that would give the agency access to a wealth of records from tag readers across the country, which sounds suspiciously like something we've heard before.
Update: 5:51 p.m. The Washington Post reports that DHS has ordered the cancellation of the national license plate tracking system after the paper published a story on the agency's solicitation of companies to set-up a nationwide database.
“The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been cancelled,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. “While we continue to support a range of technologies to help meet our law enforcement mission, this solicitation will be reviewed to ensure the path forward appropriately meets our operational needs.”
Original: Several police departments across the United States already use cameras, mountable on cars, bridges or road signs, that gather information from a license plate and check it against information in a database for any criminal connection. The DHS wants to ramp up that method of surveillance through the creation of a national database.
A government solicitation released last week called for companies to help provide the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), a branch of the DHS, with access to the National License Plate Recognition database service. There is no mention of what, if any, privacy measures will be included.
As The Washington Post reports, a national database could quite easily hold more than a billion records, which could be shared with other law enforcement agencies. While the database would help catch fugitive illegal immigrants, it would also collect data from perfectly innocent people that have done nothing wrong.
To immediately damper any comparisons to the NSA, Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) stressed that the private company the agency chooses to use will store the data, not the government. Because that makes it so much better.
The data gathered could also "only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals," and suspects that pose a threat to public safety. Gathering data from license plates would also reduce the time needed to perform surveillance, Christensen said.
Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union released a damning report warning Americans that they are being tracked by license plate readers. The group also pointed to discrepancies in license plate tracking policies, which depend on the state they're used in. In Jersey City, N.J., data is stored for five years, while the Minnesota State Patrol deletes the data after 48 hours.
"The information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights," the ACLU say on their website.
Law enforcement agents would have constant 24/7 access to the data, and would be able to use a smartphone to capture photos of license plates which could then be compared to a list of suspect cars in the database.
ICE have already tested the services of Vigilant Solutions, a company that collects data from license plates, free of charge, according to documents from an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request. The company's National Vehicle Location Service holds more than 1.8 billion records.