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Homeland Security seeking to develop massive license plate database

The US Department of Homeland Security is hoping to find a private company that is technologically capable of providing a system that will track license plates across the nation, according to a new report.

A government proposal noticed by various media outlets including  The Washington Post on Tuesday shows that DHS is trying to gain  the ability to sift through large amounts of data collected from  roadside surveillance cameras and law enforcement license plate  readers.

The justification given on the document in question is that the  database will be able to identify and track immigrants who  entered the United States illegally and are on the run from  authorities. The method could easily create such a vast network  of information, though, that American citizens suspected of no  wrongdoing could easily be snagged in the dragnet and unknowingly  have their information shared between police agencies.


A spokeswoman for the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency  (ICE), which falls under DHS authority, said the information  would only be used in a way that it would not put civil liberties  at risk.

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,” Gillian  Christensen told the Post, adding that the huge sum of data   “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal  investigations or to locate wanted individuals.”

ICE first issued a solicitation last week asking for bids from  contractors willing to build the database. Hypothetically, police  officers would use a police camera or even their own smartphone  to snap a photo of an individual’s license plate and compare  those numbers with a so-called “hot list” of plates already  stored in the national register. Police would be permitted to  access the network 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as reverberations from the National  Security Agency surveillance leak continue to be felt around the  world, civil liberties advocates are not sold on the new idea.

Ultimately, you’re creating a national database of location  information,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the  Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Post on Tuesday.   “When all that data is compiled and aggregated you can track  somebody as they go through their life.”

Prospective luddites considering relocation to the wilderness  should consider, though, that police already use a system similar  to the one proposed. Local authorities have teamed up with  commercial services to gather license plate data for a number of  reasons, with traffic safety perhaps the most common. Police  looking into suspected criminal meetings, for instance, have  compared the information obtained by their own eyes to much  smaller lists.

The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog  function – your eyeballs,” said Chris Metaxas, the chief  executive of DRN, one of the largest databases of license plate  information in the country. “It’s the same thing as a guy  holding his head out the window, looking down the block and  writing license plate numbers down and comparing them against a  list. The technology just makes things better and more  productive.”



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