Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Homeland Security Seeks National License Plate Tracking System

Fat chance... (Photo: ACLU)

Fat chance… (Photo: ACLU)

The US Department of Homeland Security is seeking to partner with a private company to create a nationwide database containing the license plate numbers of every single registered automobile in the nation.

The Washington Post reports the agency would then be able to access massive amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement license plate readers. A government proposal for the highly controversial project does not specify which, if any, privacy safeguards would be put in place.

Under the plan, scanners would read the plates of any vehicle’s license plate, potentially helping authorities capture fugitive undocumented immigrants, according to a DHS solicitation obtained and published by the Post. A police officer could snap a photo of a driver’s license plate with an iPhone and be instantly notified if that automobile is on a list of “target vehicles.” The scanners would also notify authorities if the vehicle’s registered owner is a wanted criminal or driving a stolen car.

But critics claim the database could contain more than a billion records and be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising the prospect of surveillance– possibly illegal– of law-abiding citizens.

Such tracking devices “can tell whether you stayed in a motel that specializes in hourly rates, or you stopped at a tavern that has nude dancers,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Oregon director David Fidanque told the Associated Press. “It’s one thing to know you haven’t violated the law, but it’s another thing to know you haven’t had every one of your moves tracked.”

Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), assured the Post that the database “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.”

Christensen said the database would be an invaluable tool for law enforcement officials to thwart potential threats to public safety, and that it would be operated by a private company, not a government agency.

“It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government,” she told the Post.

Such assurances are small comfort to Americans wary of a creeping surveillance state exemplified by the ongoing Edward Snowden revelations of National Security Agency spying on the phone and electronic communications of countless millions of Americans and foreigners.

“It’s becoming too much,” Florida driver Justin Davis told WFTV. “[The tracking system] could be used to pull somebody over and harass them.”

According to WFTV, Orlando, Florida police scanned more than 38,000 license plates in 2012, but only 557– or 1.4 percent– of the scans led to criminals.

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