Why does Homeland Security want a database of license plates?

The Department of Homeland Security wants a federal database of license plates, to help it track 'criminal' illegal immigrants. Civil libertarians caution against indiscriminate tracking of people who've done nothing wrong.

Jim Gehrz/Star Tribune/AP/File
Police Officer Steven Hiebert, in Minnesota, uses the License Plate Ready System, which consists of a camera that photographs license plates and then compares the numbers with those in a database of stolen vehicles, March 18, 2011. In February 2014, the US Department of Homeland Security solicited proposals to create and manage a national license plate database.

The US Department of Homeland Security wants a new nationwide database of vehicle license plates to help it track illegal immigrants and fugitives from the law, a move that is raising privacy concerns among civil libertarians.

Perhaps anticipating those concerns, DHS is asking that a private company build and manage the database, to be called the National License Plate Recognition database, so that a federal government agency would not maintain such information itself. 

DHS last week released a request for proposal for companies to bid on the contract, according to a Washington Post report, and the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be the primary user, with a focus on "criminal" illegal immigrants. 

DHS envisions a database that would allow its enforcement officials to snap a photo of a license plate with their smart phones or other devices, send the image to a server that would cross-reference the license plate number with those in the database, and receive notifications indicating a positive match.

Civil liberties advocates caution that indiscriminate tracking of individuals violates the privacy of citizens who have done nothing wrong.

“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,” Catherine Crump, a staff attorney in New York for the ACLU, said in a 2013 report compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union. “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.”

A spokeswoman for ICE said the information would be held by a third party and “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” according to the Post report.

DHS wants the company to be able to retain the information for at least one year, but it does not indicate if the company would have the discretion to keep the data for longer.

Tens of thousands of automatic license plate readers mounted on patrol cars, bridges, and overpasses already capture snapshots of passing vehicles' license plates, according to the ACLU report. These images are currently stored in local databases and sometimes connected to regional sharing systems.  

The number of large police departments using license plate readers has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal investigation. "It's one of the most rapidly diffusing technologies that I've ever seen," Cynthia Lum, a former police officer and the current deputy director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, told the Journal.

In 2012, police officers in Orlando, Fla., scanned 38,000 license plates, WFTV has reported. Only 557 of those plates were associated with a crime. In June of that same year, The Star Tribune reported that Minnesota police captured images of 805,000 license plates.

Not all states have welcomed such technology.

Revelations that the federal National Security Agency has been tracking phone call metadata and online activity have spurred at least 14 states to consider new laws that would restrict indiscriminate data collection, including of license plates, reports Fox News.

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