A year after privacy concerns led DHS to recall its solicitation for bids by private companies to help the department create a national license-plate database, which would allow unlimited access to information obtained from commercial and law enforcement license plate readers (LPRs), the agency has renewed its solicitation on the basis that privacy concerns raised by civil liberties groups and lawmakers could be addressed and managed.
In a privacy impact assessment issued last month, DHS said it is not seeking to build a national database or contribute data to an existing system. Instead the agency is seeking bids from companies that already collect license plate data and would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers at its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division.
A senior DHS privacy official told the Washington Post that after DHS chief Jeh Johnson canceled the initial solicitation last February, ICE and DHS privacy officials spent the following months developing policies that would increase “the public’s trust in our ability to use the data responsibly.” DHS is the first federal agency to issue a privacy assessment on such a solicitation, the official said.
Under the agency’s renewed attempt, ICE agents will be required to enter the type of crime associated with each query when accessing the database and random audits will be conducted to ensure the database is not being used for personal gain.
“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.
Privacy advocates are not satisfied.
“Unfortunately, it appears that DHS is attempting to justify its access to a vast database of privately collected and highly sensitive location data by releasing a privacy impact assessment that doesn’t place any meaningful limits on data collection and use,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Ars Technica. “I hope lawmakers and the public will see through this and demand more privacy protections for government access to license plate data.”
ICE is adopting a five-year data access limit for civil immigration cases and said its queries will not be shared with other agencies, unless in the case of a joint investigation. ICE agents will be able to put plate numbers of interest on an “alert list,” to receive notification when a plate is identified within the LPR system.
“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 T. Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.
The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration as well as some state and local law enforcement agencies are already using commercial license-plate tracking systems that gather information including images of plate numbers, as well as images of drivers and passengers.
Kade Crockford, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, disapproves of law enforcement’s use of LPR data altogether. She told Ars that local, state, and federal agencies “should not be allowed to collect or access records identifying the movements of tens or hundreds of millions of innocent people, or access anyone’s location history without warrants.”
Source: Homeland Security News Wire