A year after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) scuttled plans to build its own nationwide database of vehicle license plate data, the agency is seeking bids from private contractors to provide the agency access to the same information.
DHS canceled last year’s plan in the wake of TSA domestic spying revelations and subsequent outrage over increasingly intrusive government surveillance. At the time, we predicted DHS would find another way to track every single car on the road, likely by relying on the services of private companies like Vigilant Solutions, one of the largest aggregators and purveyors of license-plate data.
Companies like Vigilant, as well as police agencies in all 50 states, use automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to capture an image of every license plate they encounter. Plate readers—essentially high-speed cameras mounted on patrol cars or at fixed locations—can scan up to 1,800 plates per minute.
The system marks the time and vehicle location and then checks the plate against a “hot list” of stolen vehicles, lapsed registrations, outstanding fines or warrants, etc. The system can also check for drivers with unpaid taxes or child support, lack of insurance or even to alert the repo man. Without legislative protections, private contractors will be free to sell license-plate data to the highest bidder.
With enough ALPRs, authorities can track the day-to-day movements of everyone who drives a car. By storing and mining that data, authorities can create a detailed profile of someone’s life: where they go and when, who they see, what they do. And this applies to everyone, whether they’re suspected of wrongdoing or not. This tracking of the public en masse raises serious privacy and constitutional concerns.
One way to fix this is to limit the amount of time authorities can retain license plate data. The shorter, the better. The NMA advocates that license plate information shouldn’t be stored at all and deleted immediately if it doesn’t result in a “hit.” Unfortunately, data retention polices vary widely by law enforcement agency, and some retain the information forever. DHS wants to access data going back five years (an outrageously long time), which raises the question of why keep data on a vehicle (and by extension a person) if they haven’t been implicated in wrongdoing? The answer should be obvious.
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