DHS looking to build national license plate database

Kelsi Thorud Contributor
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A national database of vehicle license plate information may soon be available to the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement.

Homeland Security is looking to hire a contractor to construct and manage a smartphone-based license plate database. With the tool, agents would have the capability to take a photo of a license plate with their smartphone, upload it to the database and instantly be alerted if the plate is on a “hot list” of “target vehicles.”

“This system is supposed to be for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of DHS, for tracking of illegal immigrants,” WTOP national security correspondent J.J. Green reported Monday.

The DHS solicited for a “National License Plate Recognition Database” on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Green said on WTOP the United Kingdom already has a similar plate recognition system, using a large 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,” Green said.

The database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and that company — not the federal government — would collect and store all the data.

Homeland Security officials told WTOP that the new technology will reduce the man-hours needed to conduct surveillance and aid agents and policemen in catching suspects.

The DHS solicitation describes a database that would allow officers to enter the license plate number “based on investigative leads to determine where and when the vehicle has traveled.”

The system would help locate criminals “and will enhance officers safety by enabling arrests to occur away from a subject’s residence,” the agency told WTOP.

With this possible new technology come some concerns about abuse, invasion of privacy and discrimination.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report in 2013 entitled “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.”

“The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association,” the ACLU wrote.

“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,” according to the report.

Green told WTOP listeners the increase of using technology as a tool in maintaining public safety is making people nervous.

“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,” Green reported on WTOP. “You’re just somehow never alone or away from the glaring eyes, in the minds of some, of Big Brother.”