License Plate Cameras

National License Plate Tracking is Only a Federal Contract Away


Federal license plate
Public Domain

License-plate scanners are a hot technology in the law-enforcement community. With few protections for privacy, jurisdictions across the coutry have attached cameras to cars and fixed positions to automatically scan and record passing vehicle plates. It's actually impossible to enter or leave some communities without being recorded. Many of these jurisdictions have been networking their systems, or subscribing to private services that create de facto regional and national tracking systems. Now the feds want to make it official: They're looking for a private company to build a national license plate database. Ostensibly targeted at "criminal aliens and absconders," it's obviously going to scoop everybody up on the road to achieving its objective.

The official solicitation from the Department of Homeland Security describes the desired system in these terms:

This solicitation is issued to establish an Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract for acquisition of or access to commercial off-the-s helf (COTS) electronic information resources for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or more specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The intent of this Statement of Work (SOW) is to describe the operational requirements to obtain access to a National License Plate Recognition (NLPR) database service. The database should track vehicle license plate numbers that pass through cameras or are voluntarily entered into the system from a variety of sources (access control systems, asset recovery specialists, etc.) and uploaded to share with law enforcement. NLPR information will be used by DHS/ICE to assist in the location and arrest of absconders and criminal aliens. Officers should be able to query the NLPR database with license plate numbers based on investigative leads to determine where and when the vehicle has traveled. This information will assist in locating criminal aliens and absconders, and will enhance officer safety by enabling arrests to occur away from a subject's residence. The use of NLPR will reduce the man-hours required to conduct surveillance.

Such privately managed databases alredy exist, including the National Vehicle Location Service managed by Vigilant Solutions. Of course, an influx of federal money is likely to give new life, purpose, and resources to any company that has, so far, built its system based on a hodgepodge of local police department contracts.

The prospective National License Plate Recognition database service will be run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which suggests a border-control purpose that might win some public favor. But the solicitation specifies that the "service shall compile NLPR records from a variety of sources nationwide, including access control systems, asset recovery specialists, and law enforcement agencies" and "shall compile NLPR records from metropolitan areas within the US." That's not so border-specific at all.

In fact, federal license plate scanners are already in place throughout the Southwest, courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration. But those aren't currently plugged into the various networks of cameras run by regional groups, sheriffs' offices, and local police departments. A 2010 George Mason University study estimated that 37 percent of large law enforcement agencies already used license plate scanners, and that the popularity of the technology was  such that 50 percent of large agencies, and almost 10 percent of small departments would have them in place by the time the report published. That number is certain to have grown since then.

Many of those local agencies do share data with each other, or with private databases like that run by Vigilant Solutions—but on a spotty, if increasing basis. Already, Vigilant boasts that "This pool of LPR data totals over 1.8 billion detections and grows at a rate of almost 70 million per month."

The federal database would create a truly national surveillance network capable of tracking vehicle movements across state lines and from coast to coast. Just how portable and readily usable the federal license plate database might be is suggested by the solicitation's specification for an Android/iPhone app for capturing plates and searching the database.

Privacy protections for scanned license plate data have been all over the place, based more on department procedures than on deliberately chosen policies. Some agencies keep recorded plates for a period of months, or even indefinitely, while others destroy them almost immediately if they don't match alerts for targeted plates. The federal solicitation contains no mention of limits on data storage, and the word "privacy" never appears.

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  1. For the children or something like that.

  2. This information will assist in locating criminal aliens and absconders, and will enhance officer safety by enabling arrests to occur away from a subject’s residence.

    Officer safety FOR THE WIN!

    1. But how will they be able to kick in doors and throw flashbangs while laying down suppressing fire if they are arresting people away from their homes? I mean, car chases are cool and all, but i can’t believe they’d want to give up the action of playing commando.

      1. You’re right, it won’t work, there’s not enough dogs in cars.

    2. Only criminals take cabs and buses.

  3. The federal solicitation contains no mention of limits on data storage, and the word “privacy” never appears.

    Even if it did mention any of those things, you can bet it would be a lie.

  4. I remember when people used to say “it’s a free country”.

    1. Back when “Fuck you, it’s a free country!” was an acceptable response to some busybody asking “Who said you could to that?” Those were the days.

      1. I had a shocking realization a few years ago when I had a flashback to saying “it’s a free country” as a kid and then realized I hadn’t heard that phrase anywhere–not on TV, not talking to other people, nowhere–for years and years.

        It’s just not a part of the dialogue any more. Another thing that’s gone away? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

        1. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

          Sounds like a micro-aggressor to me.

        2. I actually just posted this exactly a couple days ago cause I actually believe that. Can’t remember if it was here or someplace else.

          The point was that “literally, nothing anyone says bothers me, cause it’s just words, and nothing material affecting me.”

          So – “sticks and stones”, etc.

          1. The point was that “literally, nothing anyone says bothers me, cause it’s just words, and nothing material affecting me.”

            Spoken like a true libertarobot.


              *runs away crying*

        3. “Stick and stones may break my bones but names will give me an excuse to sue and get rich!”

  5. With few protections for privacy,

    And since law enforcement has already proven itself incapable of resisting the temptation of reviewing our drivers license records for their masturbatory amusement, I can’t wait to see how this super-private-not-to-be-abused database will be used!

    1. It blows my mind that they keep acting like it won’t be abused. But then I realize these are the same people who will claim that cops don’t have quotas or that DHS employees won’t leer at the pornoscanner output.

      1. Uh – HELLO. If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to be afraid of.

  6. Lesson: if you’re a bad guy, simply steal and swap license plates for your getaway car, and you’re home free.

    1. This smacks of the NSA stuff. We have to spy on everyone so we can be safe, but the people who are actually dangerous can bypass most or all of the spying.

  7. Lean forward, and spread those cheeks, America.

  8. 1) What possibly could go wrong?
    2) If you’ve done nothing wrong, etc.
    3) Because FUCK YOU, that’s why

    I’m fond of adding a bit of reflective tape here and there on the plate in strategic areas. Never been stopped, and figure it at least makes them work harder to figure out which plate they’re ogling….


  9. I’ll just leave this here.

  10. If you have nothing to hide you shouldn’t fear driving on the government’s roads.

    1. Price we pay for civilization!


  11. Oddly enough, this isn’t a big deal to me, simply because of its inevitability.

    Within a couple decades, we’ll all be using self-driving cars. These cars will (in due course) coordinate with other cars on the road, and will of necessity be hooked up with GPS and transmitting their locations. It’s also virtually certain that cops will be able to force any (unhacked) car to stop itself, no high speed chase required.

    I’m very much looking forward to self-driving cars, they’ll be tremendously liberating in ways we can only begin to fathom. First, the obvious: traffic fatalities will fall by 90% or more. Drunk/sleepy/bad drivers won’t be an issue anymore. Traffic cops will become as obsolete as the milkman. Your car can run errands for you, without needing you there. This includes driving kids around. All this stuff is so incredibly worthwhile that it’s inevitable, even if it means that the government will know the location of every car at all times.

    Looking at the bright side… did I mention that traffic cops will go away? The same fate awaits crap like DUI checkpoints (that check for way more things than DUI, but the DUI rationale is what the supremes say makes them constitutional) and “driving while black” offenses. Seriously, cops will be able to focus on the really important stuff, like ticketing jaywalkers! Honestly, I don’t know how police departments will raise revenue, maybe they’ll have to lay off some cops. 😉

    1. did I mention that traffic cops will go away?

      Hah hah hah!

    2. I can’t wait to have my self-driving car take me everywhere at 24, 34, and 54mph.

      1. Actually, there’s every reason to believe that the self-driving cars will travel a lot faster than current cars, and they’ll still be way safer. 😉

  12. I’ve long believed in never purchasing a vehicle produced after the early 2000’s because the increased computerization lends itself to be traceable, and automatic control systems like auto-braking (collision avoidance) can be hacked and triggered to immobilize you. But, it seems that this position is all for not if my license plate is going to be tracked anyway.

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