The Department of Homeland Security wants to hire a private company to create a national license plate recognition database, including a tracking system to give the agency access to information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers — but isn't saying how it plans to protect Americans' privacy after the information is gathered.
The agency's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division says the database would be built from information gathered from readers that scan license plates of all vehicles that are driven past them, The Washington Post reports
According to an American Civil Liberties Union report
, automatic license plate readers are mounted on police cars, road signs, or bridges and use small high-speed cameras to snap shots of thousand of license plates a minute.
The readers can identify cars almost instantly, comparing them to "hot lists" of vehicles that were used in crimes or that are stolen.
ICE claims that building a national database from the plate numbers could help illegal immigrants be captured.
"It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government," said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.
But the ACLU and other privacy advocates say a national database could contain more than 1 billion records and be shared with other law enforcement agencies that could put the movements of ordinary citizens under surveillance.
"Ultimately, you're creating a national database of location information," said Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jennifer Lynch. "When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they're going through their life."
ICE began seeking bids on the project last week, The Post reports, and the database would allow agents to use a smartphone to compare license plates against the database, giving federal agents all-the-time access to the license plate information.
"The government would prefer a close-up of the plate and a zoomed-out image of the vehicle," said an ICE document about the bids. The images would then be included in a case file.
Police departments are not the only ones that gather license-plate data. Repossession companies often have drivers who go down streets, with car-mounted cameras that take pictures of vehicles.
"The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog function — your eyeballs," said Chris Metaxas, chief executive of DRN, a subsidiary of Vigilant Solutions. The company has amassed one of the largest license plate data warehouses since it was founded in 2009.
"It's the same thing as a guy holding his head out the window, looking down the block, and writing license-plate numbers down and comparing them against a list," Metaxas said. "The technology just makes things better and more productive."
Vigilant offers its National Vehicle Location Service, holding more than 1.8 billion records, to law enforcement agencies across the country, and ICE has tested the service for free, according to DHS documents obtained by the ACLU.
"The results have been excellent, accounting for approximately 100 arrests in a six-month time period," according to one of the DHS documents
. "Some of the cases that resulted in arrests were formerly thought to be cold cases."
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