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.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    beltorak (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:04pm

    > 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 fashionů 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.

     

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  2.  
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    silverscarcat (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:12pm

    Someone call Satan!

    We need to see if Hell froze over.

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:17pm

    Homeland Security, ICE...these US agencies sound like really bad dialogue from the shitty Roger Moore-era Bond movies. When are they going to get off their asses and go after SPECTRE?

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:19pm

    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.

     

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  5.  
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    Jake, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:20pm

    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.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:21pm

    Re:

    Actually they sound more to me like they are from the original Get Smart.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:24pm

    Re:

    " 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."

    That is that you know of.

     

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  8.  
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    Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:37pm

    I feel so much safer now

    Yeah, yeah. And I remember how the feds shut down Total Information Awareness, ensuring forever that the gov would never, ever snoop on us.

    ...rename/relocate/recycle... Ever wonder why they tried to slip a national surveillance program into ICE... where it might get overlooked?

     

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  9.  
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    DOlz (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:39pm

    Re: Re:

    Hey! KOAS was better organized, less corrupt, and a lot more effective than these clowns.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:42pm

    In other words...

    "We've gotten enough bids and have selected a vendor. The solicitation is now closed."

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 1:49pm

    Whats really happening...

    Plans shutdown publicly...
    Plans now continued as a state secret...

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:29pm

    They didn't end anything. They're just leaving NSA in charge of that operation for now.

     

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  13.  
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    Xuuths, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:36pm

    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?

     

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  14.  
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    weneedhelp (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:46pm

    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.

     

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  15.  
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    fred17, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:50pm

    DHS

    Yeah, they'll give it unlike the FCC will not put monitors in newsrooms. At least, until they both can sneak it in under cover of night.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 3:00pm

    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.

     

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  17.  
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    rycho (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 3:22pm

    As it ever was...

    Man wheels a huge stack of boxes into room; each full of paperwork and photo images.
    "We've been watching you for awhile," he says. "We don't like the way you have been questioning our abuse of your liberties or how you're not conforming. So we constructed a watertight case against you."

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 3:38pm

    Re: Someone call Satan!

    I keep getting the White House switchboard.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 3:47pm

    i should have a rethink, if i were you. they have shut down the 'openly advertised automatic license plate reader database', they haven't shut down the 'under cover one'! big difference here!!

     

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  20.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 4:13pm

    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.

     

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  21.  
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    rycho (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 5:03pm

    Re: I think license plates are a bad idea

    Which makes vanity plates all the more odd of a choice by people.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 6:15pm

    Officials said the database was intended to help apprehend fugitive illegal immigrants.

    I didn't realize illegals had license plates ,or is it a new bling thing.

     

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  23.  
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    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 6:37pm

    Shut down what?

    Oh, I think they probably only shut down the public plan, because of all the attention. The top secret plan is almost certainly in motion at the NSA.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 9:41pm

    Re: I think license plates are a bad idea

    Well, there's a ton of reasons why it should be possible to determine the owner of a vehicle when they aren't around and you can't open it yourself.

     

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  25.  
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    Ninja (profile), Feb 21st, 2014 @ 2:52am

    Re: Someone call Satan!

    DHS Suffers Moment Of Clarity

    This is either a clear occurrence of Schroedinger's quantum singularities or the apocalypse is coming. I'd expect sanity from virtually anywhere except for the DHS. Next will be Disney forfeiting their copyrights on everything older than 14 years. And fiery apocalypse upon us.

     

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  26.  
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    Lleuad Ci (profile), Feb 21st, 2014 @ 4:11am

    Responsibility

    Being in charge of big data is much the same as owning a gun. You have to act responsibly with it so that innocent people aren't harmed.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Pragmatic, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 4:42am

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

    I was going to ask about Old Mugwump's proposals for how to deal with stolen cars, for example. With no license plate, how do you describe your car so the cops don't pull everyone with a red Chevvy Trax over?

     

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  28.  
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    OldMugwump (profile), Feb 21st, 2014 @ 1:10pm

    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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  29.  
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    AnonCow, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 3:25pm

    Reminds me of a lesson my grandfather taught me: "If you are going to drink at work, drink Scotch, not vodka, so people will know that you are a drunk, not an idiot."

    Your excuse for doing something wrong shouldn't be worse than admitting you were doing the bad thing.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 3:48pm

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

    Pay no attention to Phagmatic's prattle, Old Mugwump. He's a statist.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 7:56pm

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

    Good points.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 22nd, 2014 @ 7:58pm

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

    Why so snippy? I thought his question was legitimate, and was curious myself. Old Mugwump had a great answer.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    Suusler, Feb 24th, 2014 @ 1:38am

    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)

     

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  34.  
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    The Wanderer (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 5:53pm

    Re: Re:

    And even if that really is all it's used for now, what is there to keep it from being (ab)used for other things later on?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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