DHS cancels plans to build a national license plate database

A week after posting a solicitation for contractor submissions, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) canceled its plans to build a massive database that would allow law enforcement officials to upload images of license plates that could assist federal agents in criminal investigations:

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 data would have been drawn from readers that scan the tags of every vehicle crossing their paths, and would have been accessed only for “ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” officials told The Washington Post this week.

“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.”

The database wouldn’t have been limited to what officers add to the database through the smartphone app. The solicitation also mentioned the use of the technology to mine images from traffic cameras. The vast majority of license plates included in the database would be from people not under investigation, yet another example of a government agency wanting the haystack to find the needle.

There aren’t often victories for civil liberties, so this is very good news. DHS finally got something right.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of Big Brother domestic surveillance programs either. The National Security Agency is still collecting metadata of Americans under no suspicion of wrong data and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is under the umbrella of DHS, is treating passengers like criminals when they go through airport security. We have to take small victories when they come our way, but we still have a lot of work left to do.


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