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National license plate database sparks privacy fears

Monday - 2/17/2014, 12:19pm  ET

Sniper license plate (Chris Gardne/AP photo)
License plates often lead police to criminals, including snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. (Chris Gardne/AP photo)

Why does Big Brother want my license plate number?

WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green says the Dept. of Homeland Security has taken a key step in its plan for a National License Plate Registration Database.

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WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security is now seeking a vendor to build and operate a smartphone-based national database of vehicle license plate information that would be shared with law enforcement.

Under the DHS plan, an agent could snap a photo with a smartphone, upload it to the database, and immediately be notified whether the plate is on a "hot list" of "target vehicles."

"This system is supposed to be for the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement branch of DHS, for the tracking of illegal immigrants," says WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green.

ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen tells Federal News Radio, "the database could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations."

DHS officially solicited the vendor on the Federal Business Opportunities website, for a National License Plate Recognition Database.

Green says a similar plate recognition system has been in use in the United Kingdom, using an extensive network of closed-circuit television cameras.

"It pretty much catches all the movements of cars, people, buses - pretty much anything that moves, at least in the cities," says Green.

How would the system help?

Homeland Security officials say the use of the database will help agents and officers catch suspects who could pose a public safety threat, and reduce the man- hours required to conduct surveillance.

According to the solicitation officers would enter the license plate numbers "based on investigative leads to determine where and when the vehicle has traveled."

The agency says the system would help in locating criminal aliens and absconders "and will enhance officer safety by enabling arrests to occur away from a subject's residence."

The specifics of how the smartphone application works would be provided by the vendor, although DHS says it is open to a system built around iPhone, Android or BlackBerry devices.

Are there privacy safeguards?

Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned about abusive, invasive, and discriminatory tracking.

Several local police departments in the Washington area use license plate readers, and say they keep the data less than a year.

In a 2013 report entitled "You are being tracked: How license plate readers are being used to record Americans' movements," the ACLU says the opportunity to misuse the data is large.

"The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association," according to the report.

"If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex- wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals," says the ACLU.

"There are some significant concerns," says WTOP's Green, "and probably rightly so, in light of the Edward Snowden revelations, that it could be used for something other than what it's intended for."

Green says the increased use of technology in maintaining public safety makes some people nervous.

"You walk out of your house with a smartphone, you're on the grid. You walk to your car, there possibly is a camera that tracks you to your car. You get in your car, you probably have some sort of WiFi capability in your car, so your car is on the grid. You go into your building there are cameras in the building."

According to Green, "People are concerned this is going to be another piece of information the government could use to keep tabs on them 24 hours a day."

"You're just somehow never alone or away from the glaring eyes, in the minds of some, of Big Brother," says Green.

Homeland Security officials say the database would be run by the commercial enterprise and the data would be collected and stored by the enterprise, not the federal government.

Green expects there would be signage to let people know their license plates might be photographed.

"There are very strict rules for the government to follow," says Green. "The question is, do they always follow them?"

Watch local news reports on the issue from across the country below.

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