DHS Cancels Plan For License-Plate Tracking System

Amid rising privacy concerns, senior Homeland Security leaders say they didn't know about proposal to develop new database system.

Wyatt Kash, former Editor, InformationWeek Government

February 20, 2014

3 Min Read
<b> Photo courtesy of Wikimedia</b>

In a sudden reversal, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency cancelled plans announced earlier this week to develop a national license-plate tracking system.

ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, had posted a notice saying it was seeking proposals from companies to develop a database and notification system that would aggregate license-plate information gathered from various commercial and law enforcement tag-reading systems.

But top officials at the immigration enforcement agency and DHS were caught off guard by the solicitation, which sparked a flurry of public concerns by privacy advocates. DHS secretary Jeh Johnson ordered the proposal be cancelled, according to an Associated Press report.

"The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been cancelled," confirmed ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen, in a statement. "While we continue to support a range of technologies to help meet our law enforcement mission, this solicitation will be reviewed to ensure the path forward appropriately meets our operational needs."

[Tech companies are also voicing the need for restraint on government surveillance. See Surveillance Protests Go Global.]

The contract notice fueled growing public concerns about the government's surveillance of US citizens. While ICE officials said the proposed database would only be used in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals, privacy advocates complained the database system would allow the government to track the daily movement of virtually every citizen who drives a car.

The sudden turnabout on the contract solicitation also raised concerns about management at ICE.

The public posting of the contract solicitation without the knowledge of ICE leadership "highlights a serious management problem within this DHS component," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.) in a statement in the Washington Post. Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, noted that ICE currently does not have a director nominated by the president. He urged ICE leaders to work more closely with DHS privacy and civil liberty officers.

The National License Plate Recognition (NLPR) database service that ICE had proposed would have given immigration enforcement officers enhanced access to the license-tag information already available to law enforcement agencies, according to an ICE solicitation document that had been available on FederalBizOps.gov, but has since been removed.

The system would have allowed agents to upload license-plate information on any vehicle, via smartphone, and check it against a list of suspected fugitives.

Even with the cancellation of the agency's license-plate tracking system, citizens won't be able to escape the electronic eyes of tag-reading systems now commonly used on the nation's toll roads, in parking garages, and many other commercial locations. State and local law enforcement agencies have been pooling information from those systems for nearly a decade and continue to gather more information as the cost of surveillance equipment grows cheaper and data analytics systems become easier for agents to use directly.

The NSA leak showed that one rogue insider can do massive damage. Use these three steps to keep your information safe from internal threats. Also in the Stop Data Leaks issue of Dark Reading: Technology is critical, but corporate culture also plays a central role in stopping a big breach. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Wyatt Kash

former Editor, InformationWeek Government

Wyatt Kash is a former Editor of InformationWeek Government, and currently VP for Content Strategy at ScoopMedia. He has covered government IT and technology trends since 2004, as Editor-in-Chief of Government Computer News and Defense Systems (owned by The Washington Post Co. and subsequently 1105 Media). He also was part of a startup venture at AOL, where he helped launch AOL Government. His editorial teams have earned numerous national journalism awards. He is the 2011 recipient of the G.D. Crain Award, bestowed annually on one individual nationally for outstanding career contributions to editorial excellence in American business media.

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