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.

Filed Under: database, dhs, homeland security, ice, license plates, privacy


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2014 @ 4:18pm

    Re: What am I missing?

    It was touted as 1.2 Billion as of a year ago. So it appears the scale has gotten larger over time.

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