Department of Homeland Security nixes plan for license-plate database

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 2/21/2014

Just days after attempting to solicit private companies to develop a national database to house license-plate information, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was dropping the project.

The database was intended to help apprehend fugitive illegal immigrants, but the plan raised concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens not under criminal investigation could be scrutinized.

“The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been canceled,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in an email to Land Line on Feb. 20. “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.”

Christensen declined to answer follow-up questions, including how the bid solicitation got posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, and what the agency is doing to balance safety and privacy concerns of ordinary citizens.

According to a Feb. 18 article in The Washington Post, the agency’s plan was to have a private contractor compile a database from a variety of sources, including law enforcement agencies and car repossession services. Information would be compiled from all license plate readers, devices which scan the tags of every vehicle crossing their paths. The data would be used to help catch fugitive illegal immigrants, according to the solicitation notice.

Christensen also did not respond to a question of what role, if any, objections to the proposal from privacy activist groups played in the agency’s decision to withdraw the solicitation.

One such organization opposing the plan is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit specializing in consumer protection, free speech and privacy advocacy in technology and digital issues.

In a Feb. 19 post on the EFF’s website, senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch wrote that the agency’s plate recognition program “raises significant privacy concerns.”

“As we’ve said before, this kind of license plate data is location data. It tells the data gatherer where you’ve been and when, and can be aggregated to present a detailed picture of your life and who you associate with – whether you’re at a lawful protest or house of worship; a gay bar or your doctor’s office; your brother’s house or your lover’s,” the post stated. “License plate data allows the data gatherer to track all movement in and out of an area; specifically target certain neighborhoods or organizations; or place political activists on hot lists so that their movements trigger alerts.”

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