Civil Liberties

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.