The DHS May Have (Publicly) Dumped Its License Plate Database Plans But It Still Has Access To Millions Of Records

from the horrible-'setback'-puts-the-DHS-right-back-in-its-original-position dept

As we recently covered, the DHS and ICE asked for bids for a nationwide license plate database before killing off the plan a few days later, apparently realizing more massive government surveillance wasn’t exactly what Americans were looking for at this point in time.

But all is not what it seems. As Kade Crockford at PrivacySOS points out, contrary to what’s been reported by a majority of the coverage on this issue, the government doesn’t need to build a nationwide license plate database because it already has access to one.

[C]ontrary to widespread understanding, DHS’ solicitation for bids had nothing to do with asking a contractor to build a nationwide license plate tracking database. Such a database already exists. The solicitation was more than likely merely a procedural necessity towards the goal of obtaining large numbers of agency subscriptions to said database, so that ICE agents across the country could dip into it at will, as many have been doing for years already. There was never a plan to “build” a plate database. A database almost exactly like the one DHS describes is a current fact. It is operated by a private corporation called Vigilant Solutions, contains nearly two billion records of our movements, and grows by nearly 100 million records per month.

So, instead of being a “win” for privacy-minded Americans, it’s not even a tie. The government already has access to collected plate records. It was just looking to expand its existing access. Plate readers, some operated by federal government agencies like the CBP, are adding millions of records a day, and these records are loosely governed by a patchwork of state and local statutes, most of which allow for the retention of “non-hit” data for periods as long as five years.

As I pointed out in my post detailing the cancellation of the bid solicitation, nothing much changes for ICE. It, like many, many, many, OH MY GOD THERE’S SO MANY other law enforcement agencies (click on that pulldown menu and get ready for a whole lot of scrolling), already has warrantless access to a variety of license plate databases. And, as I noted when the news of the bid solicitation first hit, Vigilant seemed to be vying for the top spot, having recently sent out a press release touting its ALPRs’ effectiveness in fighting crime, as well as filing a lawsuit against the state of Utah for violating its First Amendment rights by preventing it from setting up shop.

Crockford goes further in his earlier post on the subject, suggesting a national contract with Vigilant is as good as signed.

The department doesn’t intend to build its own license plate reader database, and it isn’t asking corporations to build one. Instead, it is seeking bids from private companies that already maintain national license plate reader databases. And because it’s the only company in the country that offers precisely the kind of services that DHS wants, there’s about a 99.9 percent chance that this contract will be awarded to Vigilant Solutions. (Mark my words.)

According to documents obtained by the ACLU, ICE agents and other branches of DHS have already been tapping into Vigilant’s data sets for years. So why did the agency decide to go public with this solicitation now? Your guess is as good as mine, but it may simply be a formality so that the agency can pretend as if there was actually robust competition in the bidding process.

So, apparently all that’s really been achieved is the removal of the bidding process from the public eye. Vigilant may already be in the process of hooking ICE up to the ALPR database mainline and everyone involved is now just waiting for the furor over massive domestic surveillance to die down. The privacy concerns are even less likely to be addressed now that the process has been pushed out of the sunlight. As a private company, Vigilant has the luxury of ignoring constitutional issues, leaving that up to its customers to sort out. All it wants to do is be the top company in the ALPR business. Everything else is someone else’s problem.

The bottom line is: nothing was avoided or prevented here. It was a momentary setback for ICE itself, but the government (including entities on state and local levels) already has millions of license plate records to sift through, with millions more being generated every single day.

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Comments on “The DHS May Have (Publicly) Dumped Its License Plate Database Plans But It Still Has Access To Millions Of Records”

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Anonymous Coward says:

What am I missing?

Vigilant Solutions has a database where people have been “tapping into Vigilant?s data sets for years.” Though people have been tapping into the database for years, and the database is growing at a rate of 100 million records a month, the database only has 2 billion records.

My math skills, though somewhat rusty, tell me that 2 billion records would represent around 20 months of data. Okay, I get that in the early years the rate of growth might have been less, but even so, either the 2 billion seems low, or the 100 million seems high.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What I'd really like to see..

Yes. I do. Stay home and do not register a car as required by your State Government. Do not drive with your State issued Driver’s License. Do not drive on the State, County or Municipal roads in the area that your house is where you pay State real estate taxes, County real estate taxes, Municipal real estate taxes and local school taxes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What I'd really like to see..

Ooops. I forgot. Be sure to cover your face every time you:

a) Buy gasoline
b) Enter a grocery store
c) Go to the mall
d) Deposit a check in the bank
e) Walk on a public street
f) Go to the movies
g) Take a flight
h) Rent a car
i) Check into a hotel
j) Attend a sporting event
k) Buy a six pack
l) Get a sandwich at the deli
m) Go to the beach
n) Stop at a highway rest area
o) Enter a public building
p) Park in a public garage
q) Take a train
r) Take a taxi
s) Get a cup of coffee at the convenience store
t) Get a happy meal at McDonalds for your kid
u) Have your hair cut
v) Pick up a pizza
w) Purchase a new cell phone
x) Go to Subway for a hero
y) Look for an item at Home Depot
z) Drop your kid off at day care

If you have nothing to hide, then do not worry about if your license plate is scanned. It is nothing more than a series of numbers and letters that when scanned do not report any information about you. However, when you exit your domain, everywhere you go, everything you do, someone is watching. Why the aversion to LPR technology? It’s anonymous. Google search any person you want. You will find out more about that person than any set of numbers and letters associated to a license plate scan. You cannot even enter a license plate number into google and get a result with name, address or anything else. But, if my daughter was kidnapped by a sicko I would want to know that maybe, somehow, somewhere the Government had a way to find her.

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