Homeland Security seeking to develop massive license plate database
A government proposal noticed by various media outlets including The Washington Post on Tuesday shows that DHS is trying to gain the ability to sift through large amounts of data collected from roadside surveillance cameras and law enforcement license plate readers.
The justification given on the document in question is that the database will be able to identify and track immigrants who entered the United States illegally and are on the run from authorities. The method could easily create such a vast network of information, though, that American citizens suspected of no wrongdoing could easily be snagged in the dragnet and unknowingly have their information shared between police agencies.
A spokeswoman for the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which falls under DHS authority, said the information would only be used in a way that it would not put civil liberties at risk.
“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,” Gillian Christensen told the Post, adding that the huge sum of data “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.”
ICE first issued a solicitation last week asking for bids from contractors willing to build the database. Hypothetically, police officers would use a police camera or even their own smartphone to snap a photo of an individual’s license plate and compare those numbers with a so-called “hot list” of plates already stored in the national register. Police would be permitted to access the network 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as reverberations from the National Security Agency surveillance leak continue to be felt around the world, civil liberties advocates are not sold on the new idea.
“Ultimately, you’re creating a national database of location information,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Post on Tuesday. “When all that data is compiled and aggregated you can track somebody as they go through their life.”
Prospective luddites considering relocation to the wilderness should consider, though, that police already use a system similar to the one proposed. Local authorities have teamed up with commercial services to gather license plate data for a number of reasons, with traffic safety perhaps the most common. Police looking into suspected criminal meetings, for instance, have compared the information obtained by their own eyes to much smaller lists.
“The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog function – your eyeballs,” said Chris Metaxas, the chief executive of DRN, one of the largest databases of license plate information in the country. “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. The technology just makes things better and more productive.”