The Department of Homeland Security is Seeking to Track License Plates

License plate scanners have been around for years, and repo men have proven highly adept at using them on a very large scale to spot cars whose owners are in default. In fact, the Fort Worth company Digital Recognition Network claims to collect scans of 40% of all US cars each year.

These types of databases show where people are at any given time and have proven invaluable to professionals ranging from detectives to insurance company representatives. Obviously, this type of information is highly valuable to law enforcement agencies. Agencies such as the FBI and DEA already take advantage of commercial license plate tracking systems.

The Department of Homeland Security wants access to such information and is seeking bids from license-plate scanning companies. Their goal is to empower ICE law enforcement officers.

Some DHS field offices already subscribe to the largest commercial database—that of Vigilant Solutions—and have been able to solve years-old cases with this information. This database increases by 2.7 million records each day.

Having access to such a database has the potential to greatly advance homeland security efforts, since officers will be able to put plate numbers on alert lists, so they will be notified immediately when spotters find the plate.

Privacy advocates are concerned because this information would provide warrantless access to the location and sometimes the image of virtually every adult driver in the US. The Homeland Security Secretary canceled plans to implement such a system last year and ordered a review of the privacy concerns raised by their use.

The DHS is taking the privacy concerns seriously and implementing restrictions into how the ICE agents will be able to use the database. For instance, agents and officers will have to enter the type of crime they are investigating to get access to the database. ICE plans on restricting access to that statute of limitations for the particular crime being investigated. The agency will impose a five-year limit on civil immigration cases.

So far, the DHS is unique among federal law enforcement agencies in having a privacy policy for the use of license database information and expects to implement this technology this year.