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February 21, 2014

Feds to Track Car Movements with License Plate Database

Alex Woodie

The Department of Homeland Security is now accepting bids from private companies to run a national license-plate database that will allow federal law enforcement and immigration officials to track the movements of automobiles around the country.

Automated license plate reading and tracking systems have been used by local law enforcement organizations across the country for the past several years. There are several such systems run by private companies for the benefit of law enforcement, including the DHS.

The systems use networks of fixed and vehicle-mounted cameras and exploit advanced in image-recognition technologies to read license plates en masse. Police departments in some metro areas collect tens of thousands of license plate images per day. The information is logged into databases, where it is scanned in search of automobiles that have been reported stolen, used in crimes, or otherwise associated with suspected criminals. The databases can also be used after the fact to piece together the location of suspects.

But the new federal database that DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put out to bid last week is the first known attempt to unify all those disparate tracking systems into a centralized database. Officials say the system would only be accessible by law enforcement during the course of investigations.

Nevertheless, the news led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to raise concerns that such a government-run system would violate the privacy of citizens, whether or not they have committed crimes.

But don’t worry–the new system will be run by a private company, the government says. “It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen told The Washington Post.

Several firms are angling to run the system, including Vigilant Solutions, a five-year-old Virginia firm that runs a database with 1.8 billion license-plate records. Vigilant offers its National Vehicle Location Service (NLVS) that to various law enforcement agencies around the country for a fee. ICE has tested the NLVS for free, the ACLU learned through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Post reports.

A Vigilant subsidiary called the Digital Recognition Network also figures in the fight. Last week, Vigilant and DRN filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah, arguing that a state law that bans the use of automated high-speed cameras to collect images, locations, and times of license plates is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

DRN lawyer Michael Carvin says license plate information is freely available for anybody to use. “The only purpose of license plate information is to identify a vehicle to members of the public,” he says in a story in the Pando Daily. “There’s nothing private about this information.”

The DRN is a collection of more than 550 affiliates around the country. It’s used in every metropolitan area, the company says, for law enforcement as well as vehicle repossession outfits. More than 50 million vehicle images are added to the database every month.

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