Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security demanded the cancellation of a plan to access or buy commercial databases for tracking license plates nationwide after criticism from privacy advocates.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of the department, had planned to use the information to help find fugitives and undocumented immigrants, according to a government document. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directed the cancellation, according to the department.
“The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been canceled,” Gillian Christensen, a deputy press secretary at the agency, said in an e-mail. “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 immigration office had asked companies for proposals to provide or allow access to a database to “track vehicle license plate numbers that pass through cameras or are voluntarily entered into the system from a variety of sources,” and shared with law enforcement, according to the document posted on a federal website.
The solicitation, reported earlier by the Washington Post, didn’t outline any privacy safeguards for the technology. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have raised questions about whether such tools will be used by governments to keep tabs on innocent Americans.
“License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: The government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever,” the ACLU’s Catherine Crump wrote in a report in July.
The organization analyzed more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country that capture license-plate information.
“Where people travel can reveal a great deal about them -- where they go to the doctor, who all of their friends are, every deviation from their daily routine,” Crump, a staff attorney in New York for the ACLU, said of the immigration office project. “That is not the type of information that should be collected about each and every one of us when there is no reason to believe we are doing anything wrong.”
Local law enforcement agencies obtain photos of license plates at different locations to help locate stolen cars or to carry out arrest warrants, according to the ACLU.
Companies including Livermore, California-based Vigilant Solutions and Mvtrac LLC, based in Palatine, Illinois, offer license plate databases.
Mvtrac has systems that collect license-plate data from across the country and store the information. Its databases have been used to recover abducted children, help solve murders and repossess automobiles when owners have missed years of payments, said Scott A. Jackson, the company’s chief executive officer.
Before the solicitation’s cancellation, Jackson said Mvtrac planned to bid on the immigration office project.
Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing for Vigilant, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The system would let officers query the database with license plate numbers “based on investigative leads to determine where and when the vehicle has traveled,” the solicitation said. The agency had said it wanted the database to provide access 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Before the cancellation, Christensen had said agency officials would only be able to access the system in conjunction with criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.
The department didn’t plan on creating a database, Christensen had said. The data would be collected and stored by a commercial enterprise, not the government, she said.
There should be limits on how long data can be retained, said the ACLU’s Crump and Mike German, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
There should also be “strict public guidelines” about the type of information that is being collected, who is using it and for what purposes, said German, who also previously worked as the ACLU’s policy counsel for national security and privacy issues.
“The government argues it needs this authority based on solving serious crimes, and it is often used for very low-level crimes that don’t really justify the imposition on people’s privacy,” he said in a phone interview.
Those lower-level infractions may include immigration violations without criminal components, loitering or expired car registrations and inspections, he said.
The agency’s solicitation was made public Feb. 12 on Federal Business Opportunities, a government website.
The immigration office wanted the database service to allow communication between users “anonymously, via alias or with full identity,” according to the document.
That’s a concern because anonymous activity would make it difficult for the agency to audit the use of the database to keep tabs on whether requests are legitimate, German said.
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