DHS seeks national license plate tracking system

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seeking bids from companies able to provide law enforcement officials with access to a national license-plate tracking system – a year after canceling a similar solicitation over privacy issues.

The reversal comes after officials said they had determined they could address concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and lawmakers about the prospect of the department gaining widespread access, without warrants, to a system that holds billions of records that reveal drivers’ whereabouts.

In a privacy impact assessment issued Thursday, DHS clarifies it is not seeking to build a national database or contribute data to an existing system.

Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Officials said they also want to impose limits on ICE personnel’s access and use of the data.

“These restrictions will provide essential privacy and civil liberty protections, while enhancing our agents’ and officers’ ability to locate and apprehend suspects who could pose a threat to national security and public safety,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement. The solicitation will be posted publicly Thursday.

Privacy advocates who reviewed a copy of the privacy assessment said it fell short.

“If this goes forward, DHS will have warrantless access to location information going back at least five years about virtually every adult driver in the U.S., and sometimes, to their image as well,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy &Technology.

Commercial license-plate tracking systems are already used by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as some local and state law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement groups say that the fears of misuse are overblown. But news of the DHS solicitation triggered a public firestorm last year, leading Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to cancel it and order a review of the privacy concerns raised by advocates and lawmakers.

Over the following months, ICE and DHS privacy officials developed policies aimed at increasing “the public’s trust in our ability to use the data responsibly,” according to a senior DHS privacy officer. DHS is the first federal agency, officials said, to issue a privacy assessment on such a solicitation.

Commercial license-plate-tracking systems can include a variety of data. Images of plate numbers are generally captured by high-speed cameras that are mounted on cars or in fixed locations and photograph the tags of vehicles crossing their paths. Some systems also capture images of the drivers and passengers.

The largest commercial database is owned by Vigilant Solutions, which as of last fall had more than 2.5 billion records, and grows by 2.7 million records a day.

DHS officials say Vigilant’s database, which some field offices have had access to on a subscription basis, has proven valuable in solving years-old cases. Privacy advocates, however, are concerned about the potential for abuse and note that commercial data banks generally do not have limits on how long that data is retained.

ICE said it will restrict agents’ access to the data to the number of years corresponding to the relevant statute of limitations for any crime being investigated. For civil immigration cases, where there is no statute of limitations, the agency is adopting a five-year limit, officials said.

ICE officers and agents will also be required to enter the type of crime associated with the query to gain access, and there will be random audits to ensure that no one is using the database to look up information on personal associates. They may search for only a particular number.

ICE queries will not be shared with other agencies, unless they are working on a joint investigation, a senior DHS official said. ICE personnel will also be able to put numbers of interest on an “alert list,” enabling them to be notified almost instantly when a plate is spotted.

Ginger McCall, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Open Government Project, said the new safeguards were not “meaningful.” She called the data retention requirements “exceedingly vague” and said tracking people through alert lists without a warrant is troubling.

The senior privacy officer said current case law does not require the government to seek a warrant for such data.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly strong enough given the particular acute privacy and civil liberties issues implicated by locational data,” McCall said.

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