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Privacy Law

Plan to create a national license-plate tracking database is canceled by feds, at least for now

Posted Feb 20, 2014 11:05 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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After news broke this week that a contractor was being sought by a Department of Homeland Security agency to create a computerized national database of information gathered by license-plate reading equipment throughout the country, DHS has canceled the plan.

It said top officials at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had not been aware of the request for proposals to create a national license-plate tracking database, the Washington Post (reg. req.) reports.

The plan was billed as a project focused on immigration enforcement and stated that license plate data would have been used only for “ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” officials told the Post earlier. However, some observers expressed concern that the database would pose a serious privacy violation by allowing government officials to monitor the movements of a vast number of innocent individuals, since stationary license plate readers input information for all vehicles that drive by in their vicinity. Under the ICE plan, agents could have submitted photos of license plates via the Internet to be checked against a national "hot list."

Staff attorney Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union greeted the cancellation of the proposals request as good news, the Post reports. However, she pointed out that many U.S. law enforcement agencies already have access to extensive private databases of license plate data. Consideration by lawmakers is needed, she said, of "what privacy restrictions should be put in place when the government wishes to access information on Americans’ movements that stretches back for years and has the potential to paint a detailed picture of our daily lives.”

It appears that ICE has not necessarily given up the national license-plate database project altogether, but is subjecting it to further scrutiny:

“The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been canceled,” said spokeswoman Gillian Christensen in a written statement provided to the newspaper. “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.”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: "Where were you yesterday? Uncle Sam may soon know: Feds plan national license-plate tracking system"

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