DHS Building National License Plate Reader Database

Cameras can identify, track vehicles on watch lists

February 17, 2014

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seeking to build a national license plate reader database, according to a recent job posting for government contractors.

The posting, first reported by Ars Technica, seeks a contractor to build a national license plate recognition database for DHS and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technology uses cameras to identify cars, alert police departments if they match a license plate on a "hot list," and track their movements.

"In support of its public safety focus, ICE, consistent with other law enforcement agency practice, is exploring the ability to obtain access to a National License Plate Recognition database—allowing officers and agents to identify subjects of ongoing criminal investigations," Gillian Christensen, a DHS spokesperson, told Ars Technica. "The database could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations."

DHS has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants since 2007 to law-enforcement agencies for ALPR technology. Thousands of police departments across the country use the scanners.

License plate readers can alert police when they spot a stolen car or otherwise flagged vehicle. For example, Virginia police used ALRP data to find a 67-year-old man who had been missing for two days.

Civil liberties groups such as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argue license plate reader technology is being adopted by law enforcement agencies without proper privacy safeguards.

Virginia State Police recorded the license plates of cars attending campaign rallies for President Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 and 2009.

Following increased public concern over government surveillance, at least 14 states including Virginia are considering laws that would curb ALPR data collection.

Six states already have laws regulating the use of ALPR data.

They say law enforcement agencies keep information for too long, building massive databases of citizens’ everyday activities. The technology, they also argue, is ripe for abuse.

A police officer in Washington, D.C., pled guilty to extortion in 1998 after using ALRP data to blackmail drivers who frequented a local gay bar.

The ACLU of Southern California and the EFF are suing the Los Angeles Police Department for public records on how it uses ALPR data.

Meanwhile, a firm that sells ALPR technology is suing Utah for a new law banning license plate readers, arguing the law infringes on its First Amendment rights.

Published under: DHS , ICE