DHS Suffers Moment Of Clarity, Shuts Down Plans To Build A Nationwide License Plate Database

from the an-NSA-esque-program-would-be-perfect-for-today's-political-climate! dept

Well, that was fast. No sooner had word spread that the DHS (and ICE) were soliciting bids for a national ALPR (automatic license plate reader) database than the government has stepped forward to cancel those plans.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday ordered the cancellation of a plan by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to develop a national license-plate tracking system after privacy advocates raised concern about the initiative.

The order came just days after ICE solicited proposals from companies to compile a database of license-plate information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers. Officials said the database was intended to help apprehend fugitive illegal immigrants, but the plan raised concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens under no criminal suspicion could be scrutinized.

The (stated) reasoning behind this wasn’t the outrage the announcement generated. Instead, officials are portraying it as some sort of rogue bid solicitation, done with no one’s permission that somehow magically appeared on an official government platform.

“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.”

This itself should be concerning. If ICE leadership can’t even keep an eye on its all-too-helpful minions, one is forced to wonder how many other solicitations have “escaped” in this fashion… and how many of those turned into actual ICE/DHS programs.

But I wouldn’t dwell on the ICE’s internal failures for too long. The most plausible explanation is that someone up top at the DHS or ICE suddenly realized that publicly calling for bids on a nationwide surveillance system while nationwide surveillance systems are being hotly debated was probably a horrible idea.

This may have been put on the back burner by the agency but it’s not simply going to go away. It will return, either via a super-secret bidding system that turns the job over to favored government contractors, or further down the road, when the heat surrounding surveillance of US citizens dies down.

As it stands right now, nothing much changes for ICE. There are several ALPR contractors already in service who have collected (and continue to collect) millions of license plate records. And these can all be accessed by government agencies just as easily as they’re accessed by local law enforcement — without warrants, subpoenas or anything else that might generate a paper trail.

But don’t worry, citizens. When this inevitably returns, ICE will have your privacy in mind. After all, the bid solicitation specifies that the system must conform with the Privacy Act of 1974. Nothing says “privacy” in 2014 like a 40-year-old law, especially one loaded with convenient exceptions for law enforcement.

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Comments on “DHS Suffers Moment Of Clarity, Shuts Down Plans To Build A Nationwide License Plate Database”

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34 Comments
beltorak (profile) says:

> If ICE leadership can’t even keep an eye on its all-too-helpful minions, one is forced to wonder how many other solicitations have “escaped” in this fashion? and how many of those turned into actual ICE/DHS programs.

Why none, of course. We caught the only bad one. This is the system working. There is nothing of import to see here, Patriot. Please move along.

Anonymous Coward says:

In other news…

James Clapper releases a statement, claiming that the leadership at the NSA didn’t request that the telcos give the NSA all of those metadata records every day. The telcos just offered to give them up every day and it was a lower level employee that said “OK”. He then claims that the leadership didn’t know about these programs until after they were up and running.

Jake says:

You know, in a saner political climate this thing might have been useful. I mean, we actually have one of these in Britain (which is admittedly a much smaller country with only three and a half ‘states’) and the most repressive and dystopian thing it ever gets used for is hassling people who haven’t kept their vehicle ownership paperwork up to date or are behind on their road tax payments.

Suusler says:

Re: Re:

In the Netherlands there are also licence plate camera’s. When introduced it was said it would combat organized crime.

Ofcourse it is naive to believe that, because now the data is used by the tax agency’s. For instance to check if you don’t drive too many for private km’s in your lease car. (otherwise you should pay more)

Xuuths says:

What's the difference?

What’s the difference between scanning license plates and the police officer sitting along the road with a radar gun, taking readings of every vehicle regardless of whether they are parked or zooming along at 100+ mph?

Or a police officer walking a beat who is observing and making decisions about whether anyone — innocent or guilty — matches any APBs they recall?

You can think of a whole bunch of instances like this. No court order, nor is one even suggested or likely. What do you feel is the part that changes?

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Re: What's the difference?

The part that changes is the part where they store all that info in a database to be abused at a whim.

Three years later and all of a sudden a cop trolling for something to do may notice your tag was read at the same location as a murder. Now whoops… all of a sudden you are drug into a police station asking you what you did three years ago on this date at 4:39PM. Better have a good answer.

With the cops you at least have context… with stored data… not so much.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What's the difference?

Good point. But I think there are two major differences: 1) anonymity and 2) transience. A police officer with a radar gun measures my speed and, unless I am actually breaking the law, immediately moves on. I remain anonymous through the entire transaction, which itself disappears into the ether. Likewise for a police office walking his beat. Unless he interacts with me in some way, I remain anonymous and the “probe” is transient.

If the license plate scanner system were implemented like this–where law enforcement simply flags a plate they care about, so that it triggers an alarm if it passes the scanners–it might be equivalent.

But this is not how this would work. It would be much more useful to law enforcement if the plate readers simply recorded every plate and then filed it into a database somewhere, which could then be queried for the locations visited by a plate of interest for the last five years. This is radically different than a radar gun. It is “meta” data on the location every car driven by every person in the US, stored non-anonymously servers run by the government (or a private contractor!). I am not anonymous, and the data are not transient.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

I think license plates are a bad idea

Maybe not such a bad idea when first introduced, but modern technology makes them a lot more dangerous, in terms of potential abuse, than 100 years ago.

We should get rid of license plates. If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, THEN the cop can ask for your vehicle paperwork.

You should be able to drive anonymously. That’s why license plates have random numbers instead of our names on them.

But with stuff like plate readers and databases and smartphones and Google Glass…we may as well just put our names on the plates.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I think license plates are a bad idea

Re identifying owners – vehicles already have VIN numbers that are registered in the same DMV database as the license plate number. But VIN numbers are printed small and can’t be seen at a distance (you can see them thru the windshield of a parked car).

Re stolen cars – how do you uniquely describe the mugger so the cops don’t stop everyone in a red t-shirt with a baseball cap? Same answer.

I can’t think of any argument for license plates on cars that doesn’t equally apply to pedestrians.

If you think you should be required to wear a big sign with your SSN whenever you walk in public, then you’ll think license plates are a good idea too.

We accept them now only because we’re used to them.

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