Police departments across the country in recent years have embraced automatic license plate readers as a means to quickly track down vehicles. Now, the federal government wants to try out that tracking capability on a national scale.
The Department of Homeland Security is soliciting bids from private companies to provide and run a federal license plate tracking system, according to The Washington Post. The database, which would pull information from readers that scan every license plate they "see," could store information on more than one billion drivers.
As with local license plate tracking operations, DHS believes a national version could streamline the process of hunting for suspects or fugitives, offering law enforcement agents with instantaneous intel on vehicle locations. Even civil liberties groups concede such systems have a degree of practical value.
Yet such an enormous, information-rich database poses an inherent privacy risk. As the National Security Agency has proven time and again, wide intelligence nets are prone to abuse, no matter how nobly intentioned.
Though a DHS spokesman told the Post the database would be privately run, and "could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals," there are still some important privacy questions left unanswered.
The biggest concern is how long information will be kept in the database. DHS hasn't offered guidance to potential bidders, leaving it up to them to decide the matter for themselves. As far as we know, information entered into the database could stay there indefinitely, painting a detailed picture of someone's travel patterns for years and years — everything from vacations to trips to the grocery store.
As the American Civil Liberties Union warned last year in a report on local license plate trackers, systems without strict guidelines on the retention and usage of information "create large location tracking systems of innocent people," which "allow[s] law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives."
[T]hese systems are conﬁgured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen — not just the data of vehicles that generate hits. All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of motorists' location information are being created. All too frequently, these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used. [ACLU]
In other words, databases can be used to snoop on private citizens. How? Consider that NSA staffers used the agency's phone records database to spy on paramours and other innocents.
More pertinently, the Virginia State Police used license plate readers to monitor all the vehicles at President Obama's 2009 inauguration, and at campaign rallies for Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Sarah Palin. Sure, those events could use some extraordinary security measures. But the fact that such a tracking system can and has been used for overtly political ends is a reminder of their potential for abuse. Leaving the database in the hands of a private company, as the DHS has said it would do, would only make that concern more relevant.
Laws vary between states on how long law enforcement can hold on to license plate data. Some require the data to be dumped within a few days, while others set no limits on its retention. To mitigate that concern, the ACLU has suggested information only be stored when there is suspected criminal activity, and that tracking systems impose strict rules on how and when the databases can be accessed.
The DHS could assuage some concern over its proposed database by heeding those suggestions. For now though, it has yet to explain how its database would be insulated from abuse and operated in a way to adequately balance privacy with the necessities of effective law enforcement.