License-Plate Tracking Technology Sought by U.S. Customs

The U.S. said it’s seeking to get access to or acquire commercial databases for tracking license plates nationwide to help find fugitives and undocumented immigrants, according to a government document.

The Department of Homeland Security is asking 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 solicitation.

The department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will use the National License Plate Recognition database “to assist in the location and arrest of absconders and criminal aliens,” according to the document. The agency said the technology will reduce surveillance man-hours and improve officers’ safety.

The solicitation, first reported by the Washington Post today, doesn’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.

License Plates

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 Homeland Security 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.

Abducted Children

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.

Mvtrac plans to bid on the Homeland Security project, he said in a phone interview.

Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing for Vigilant, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment about whether the company would bid.

The Homeland Security 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 department wants the database to provide access 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Criminal Probes

Agency officials could only access the system in conjunction with criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals, Gillian Christensen, a deputy press secretary at Homeland Security, said in an e-mail.

The department isn’t creating a database, Christensen 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.

Immigration Violations

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. Responses are due March 14.

The department wants 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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