DHS Expands License Plate Dragnet, Streams Collections To US Law Enforcement Agencies

from the let-the-government-know-your-travel-plans...-as-you-travel! dept

The DHS has provided the public with a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on its use of license plate readers (LPRs). What the document shows is the DHS’s hasty abandonment of plans for a national license plate database had little impact on its ability to create a replacement national license plate database. The document deals with border areas primarily, but that shouldn’t lead inland drivers to believe they won’t be swept up in the collection.

The DHS has multiple partners in its license plate gathering efforts, with the foremost beneficiary being the DEA, as Papers, Please! Reports:

The latest so-called “Privacy Impact Assessment” (PIA) made public by the US Department of Homeland Security, “CBP License Plate Reader Technology“, provides unsurprising but disturbing details about how the US government’s phobias about foreigners and drugs are driving (pun intended) the convergence of border surveillance and dragnet surveillance of the movements of private vehicles within the USA.

The CBP defines the border as anything within 100 miles of the country’s physical borders, which also include international airports. Consequently, more than 2/3rds of the nation’s population reside in the CBP’s so-called “Constitution-free zone.” The plate readers discussed in the PIA aren’t just the ones drivers and visitors might expect. While the CBP operates many of these at static locations at entry points, other LPRs are mounted on CBP vehicles or hidden in areas the CBP patrols.

The addition of the DEA adds law enforcement to the mix. This means the DHS is intermingling its collection with existing law enforcement databases, allowing it to build an ad hoc national database without having to inform the public or hire a contractor to build one from the ground up.

[T]he DEA has compiled an aggregated database of geotagged and timestamped license plate records purchased from commercial sources, including records of vehicle locations far from what even the DHS considers the “border zone”.

CBP and DEA are already able to query and retrieve data from each other’s LPR databases. A DEA agent can also set a “TECS alert” flag in the DHS database for a specific license plate number, the same way they can for a specific passport number, so that they will be notified automatically whenever that plate is spotted by a DHS camera.

Vanishing from these multiple databases is any form of targeting. The DHS plans to pipe its LPR collection to DEA and other law enforcement agencies as a live feed, allowing agencies on the receiving end to browse the collection at will and/or add it to databases they control.

“CBP intends to provide DEA access to CBP LPR information… through a real-time streaming service.” Each agency will have a complete copy of the data collected by the other, so that they can merge and mine it and use it for “pre-crime” profiling.

The Impact Assessment notes privacy will, yes, be “impacted,” but that’s the way it goes. Many, many US citizens who have never crossed the border will have their license plate/location data added to multiple law enforcement databases. But what option does the DHS have? Not policing the “border?” Not helping the DEA out with the Drug War? From the PIA [PDF]:

Privacy Risk: There is a risk to individual participation in that individuals do not have an opportunity to consent to CBP’s retention and use of their license plate data.

Mitigation: This risk is not mitigated given the purpose of the collection. Many areas of both public and private property have signage that alerts individuals that the area is under surveillance; however, this signage does not consistently include a description of how and with whom such data may be shared. Moreover, the only way to opt out of such surveillance is to avoid the impacted area, which may pose significant hardships and be generally unrealistic.

As Papers, Please! notes, this PIA is a nice addition to the DHS’s collection, but it’s supposed to be released prior to roll out and the public is supposed to be notified via the Federal Register about additional collections of personally-identifiable info by government agencies. None of this has happened in a timely manner, making these collections illegal until the assessments are in place and notices properly published. The DHS — along with its component agencies — routinely ignore statutory requirements but, to date, not a single agency official has been punished for disobeying the law.

As for US citizens, they can expect this Kudzu-like growth of surveillance to continue, especially around airports or borders, even as the country remains only minimally threatened by terrorist activity or illegal entry into the country.

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Comments on “DHS Expands License Plate Dragnet, Streams Collections To US Law Enforcement Agencies”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: In other words


I do not recall seeing anything in the constitution about any zones within the US borders where said document is not applicable.

It is my understanding that if said exclusion is to be made law, then an amendment to the constitution is required. That has not happened and therefore these “constitution free zones” are illegal and many LEOs are guilty of many felonies and misdemeanors.

But I doubt anything will be done about these transgressions. The proles are subjected to finger wagging all the time whilst those doing the wagging are exempt from the laws of the land that everyone else has to follow. This is a good example of what many refer to as complete bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

The most disappointing thing I read in this article is once again having to suffer through "Constitution free zone", as if that’s a real thing. Not sure why TechDirt is so bent on stuffing this into so many articles. It makes the publication sound like it’s written by crazies. Some things near the border might have less protection especially having to do with public surveillance but no constitution at all? TechDirt has a lot of great content but please cut back on the Alex Jones-level hysteria, it does not benefit your publication. IMHO.

charliebrown (profile) says:


Certain states in Australia, specifically New South Wales but I don’t know which others, have done away with registration stickers in favour of giving every police car a license plate reader and the ability to instantly check, via computer, on the status of said vehicle (expired rego, stolen, etc).

Most of these are in-car systems only, as far as I know there are no automatic readers in use. But I should look into this. Combine that with the fact that our public transport fares are all paid by smartcards which may be optionally registered, the government of NSW can track nearly everybody.

Heck, even toll roads and toll bridges are paid via a little RFID tag in your car, so, really, if you don’t want your movements tracked, travel only by taxi (very expensive) and bicycle or walk or don’t come to Australia!

English Type says:

Re: Australia

Three years ago in the UK, they did away with road tax discs, which had to be displayed in the windscreen, in order to modernize and “save money”. Now there’s just a database and the number of untaxed vehicles has doubled. This makes little sense unless it’s used as a valid reason to introduce widespread automatic reading of licence plates, which we have.

“our public transport fares are all paid by smartcards which may be optionally registered”

Same in the UK or we pay with our debit cards. Combine that with the CCTV in all buses, trains and stations and it’s a very good way to track people’s movements.

Facial recognition systems, already installed in Russia and China and being tested in a democracy near you, are the next step, and then it’s simple to track everyone in public by name, all the time, automatically.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Australia

and then it’s simple to track everyone in public by name, all the time, automatically.

Unless they are wearing a Hoodie, closed face helmet, burka or mask to cover their faces. A wide brim hat, or open umbrella will also obscure the face from cameras mounted above head height, I.E. most of them, as mounting them lower allows their view to be blocked for a time, by somebody standing in front of them. (have I just described a new criminal job, that of camera blocker).

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

The DHS and DoJ don't care about constitutional rights, and neither do the judges.

And as long as those two conditions stay in effect, we United States Citizens don’t get rights.

Of course, it means a court of human rights would have grounds to declare the US legal system invalid, if one dared to challenge the United States. Every conviction is political. Every prisoner is a political prisoner.

You Betcha says:

Knee Jerks (reactions)

A while back a local (well known) musical group had a small fleet of cheap cars available for anyone to use, anytime. In such a situation, and in some households with several people, a car could be driven by anyone – including friends.

So, the car is tracked, not a person.

Of course the knee jerk reaction is/will be to make that illegal too, along with looking askance at stupid lawn odor types.

ECA (profile) says:


Are we taking the jobs of police NOW??

Setup a few locations around a city, and you could/would tag 1000 cars per minute(easy) and know where they are coming and going..

THEn share that data with EVERY POLICE FORCE(there are allot of them)..

DONT fix the Wage problem..Just over tax the poor, and RAISE the police force..
Groceries are going UP for the 4th time in 10 years..CAN YOU AFFORD IT..

jcwconsult (profile) says:

License Plate Readers

There is a terribly simple solution to license plate readers for the privacy issue. At a maximum of 72 hours, the data on all plates that did not get a hit for further investigation must be permanently deleted from the database. There is NO justification to keep records of peoples’ travels when the plate numbers do not cause a probable-cause reason for further investigation.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

Anonymous Coward says:

Just get one of these plastic license plate covers that prevents the plate from being seen at angle, preventing nearly all license plate cameras from seeing your number.

I do that because of an invention known as the “noise snare”. I like to blast my car stereo loud both for safety and entertainment, and I have heard of some red light cameras being fitted with noise snares to give people tickets in the mail for either loud stereos or loud exhuast, so I have such plastic covers so I will not get a ticket in the mail for loud car stereo.

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