Setting the record straight on DHS and license plate tracking

There has been a lot of press coverage in the past couple of weeks about the Department of Homeland Security posting a solicitation for contract proposals regarding access to a national license plate reader database—and DHS’s decision, once mainstream news outlets began covering the story, to withdraw the solicitation. That has led to a lot of triumphant talk about how the agency shelved the plans in the face of widespread public outcry and bad press.

There’s just one problem with this narrative: it’s completely wrong, beginning to end.

First of all, contrary to widespread understanding, DHS’ solicitation for bids had nothing to do with asking a contractor to build a nationwide license plate tracking database. Such a database already exists. The solicitation was more than likely merely a procedural necessity towards the goal of obtaining large numbers of agency subscriptions to said database, so that ICE agents across the country could dip into it at will, as many have been doing for years already. There was never a plan to "build" a plate database. A database almost exactly like the one DHS describes is a current fact. It is operated by a private corporation called Vigilant Solutions, contains nearly two billion records of our movements, and grows by nearly 100 million records per month. As I explain in greater detail here, DHS likely just wanted broader access to tap it.

Second, contrary to the impression that many seem to have that DHS does not use license plate readers, some of the agency’s sub-organizations have been using the technology for years now. Customs, Border Patrol, for example, operates license plate readers at every land border crossing, a fact that has been somewhat widely reported. You have to read beyond headlines like "Department of Homeland Security cancels national license-plate tracking plan" to understand that DHS already makes substantial use of license plate readers, both by deploying its own and accessing privately held databases containing billions of records.

It seems as if many people are under the mistaken impression that we dodged a surveillance-bullet when DHS withdrew this solicitation. We didn’t. A national plate tracking database exists, run by Vigilant Solutions, and it is widely used by law enforcement nationwide. The company is currently aggressively defending in court its ability to track anyone it wants, however it wants. If you’d like to see which agencies have access to its rapidly growing database, you can click here and scroll through the drop down menu. Vigilant has helpfully provided a list for all to peruse.

Unfortunately, lots of misleading information about this issue is spreading like wildfire, leading some activists to claim a very premature victory. But the only thing truly different today is that, thanks to widespread press attention, more Americans than ever are aware of the threat mass license plate tracking poses to our privacy on the open road. What we need now is to find out the extent to which DHS already contracts with Vigilant Solutions, tapping into its massive plate tracking database. I’m sure the first journalist to score those documents will be well rewarded, and I’m eager to see the results.

This was originally posted on Privacy SOS.

Add a comment (2)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

It's too bad my ex-husband can't cry Privacy SOS - b/c he died in the very terrorist attack that turned everybody into raging privacy advocates in the first place.
Most of the time I'm quite fine with it - not his death, but the fact that for a few days people pretended they cared what happened then turned around and showed that they really care more about themselves. Because they get to be alive TO care but never mind. Unfortunately, tonight's not one of those times I'm all right with the world, based on the absolutely hell-on-earth week I've just endured working for the Boss from the 13th Circle of Hell: the one I invented to include people who deserve to be cursed to it for eternity, having an ongoing luncheon in which every person who speaks has to "one-up" everyone else, and you feel like you're being forced to listen to the conversation from Hell's own kitchen.

But the writer of this article is from Massachusetts, which means nothing really except that it reminds me of what all the involved Logan Airport Security officers told our family when they were describing what it was like before they passed Mohammed Atta and the other terrorist through the checkpoint even though the guards "were absolutely sure that both were the angriest people [they'd] ever seen in [their] lives."
They passed them through anyway, after thinking for what they made sound like was at least 5 minutes, and their given reason for it "because the angry men were wearing suits and a tie" actually upset my then-teenage daughter so much that she ran from the room and never returned that day. In fact she never talked to them again.
I have no idea where I'm trying to go with this point, but it has something to do with giving the terrorists the benefit of the doubt, then being made out to look like the biggest fools on the planet. If you REALLY thought they looked that way, and you were GENUINELY that concerned, NOTHING should have been able to change your mind about not passing them through - LEAST of all a damn stupid tie and business suit, the former of which they had discarded when they were seen on the security monitors not 5 minutes later.
I'm assuming that someone who actually LIVES in Massachusetts would know that information about the terrorists; I'm also supposing it's accurate information, but the government has lied to us so many times I'm no longer even sure of THAT much.

Anyway, when someone (or 19 people) violate trust that much, how the hell do you exPECT people to respond to it?
I would expect they'd have one bleep-load of a difficult time of it - or I do anyway. Then again, I've always been accused of being too emotional, as if that one quality - that separates humans from androids these days - was such a terrible thing to possess.
I don't care if people have a different opinion from me. Opinions come and go among the best of us.
I DO care OTOH that people preTENDed they were united to stand against a perceived enemy that really is real whether you believe it or not (calling it the "supposed war on terror" suggests you people think the idea was totally unprovoked and that's simply not true) but then turned around and might as well have told us they never WERE united against it.
I don't care about differing opinions. I do care about what I perceive to be a person or group of people having lied to me.

That's how I feel after being used as an emotional battering ram for a solid week. Having to deal with people who think they're too good to talk to you in a social setting, or at least "too qualified," "too educated," too SOMEthing.
I hate snobs, especially ones who got nothing to freakin' BRAG about.

Anonymous

Meanwhile, cities and counties are happily deploying license plate readers.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/fl-lauderdale-license-plate-rea...

Stay Informed