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Homeland Security sets sights on national database of license plates

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at 8:24 p.m.

— The Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to create a national license plate tracking system that would give the agency access to vast amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement license plate readers, according to a government proposal that does not specify what privacy safeguards would be put in place.

The “national license plate recognition database service,” which would draw data from readers that scan the tag of every vehicle crossing their paths, would help catch fugitive undocumented immigrants, according to a DHS solicitation. But the database could easily contain more than 1 billion records and may be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion also could be scrutinized.

A spokeswoman for DHS' Immigrations and Customs Enforcement stressed that the database “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.

The database will enhance agents’ and officers’ ability to locate suspects who could pose a threat to public safety and should reduce the time required to conduct surveillance, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.

“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,” Christensen said.

But civil liberties groups are not assuaged. “Ultimately you’re creating a national database of location information,” said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they’re going through their life.”

ICE last week issued a notice seeking bids from companies to compile the database from a variety of sources, including law enforcement agencies and car-repossession services.

Agents would be able to use a smartphone to snap pictures of license plates that can be compared against a “hot list” of plates in a database. They would have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access, according to the solicitation, which was first noted last week by bloggers.

“The government would prefer a close-up of the plate and a zoomed-out image of the vehicle,” the document said. The images would go in a case file report that would also include maps and registration information, as well as car make and model.

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