Homeland Security Cancels Plan to Track License Plates Nationwide

3f7d1b4d-1035-4baa-b7bf-57683323a11d.jpegThe Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has abruptly canceled a recent plan to collect data from private license-plate readers and store it in a national database.

The controversial proposal was intended to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) locate illegal immigrants who have broken the law. DHS wanted to be able to access license-plate recognition databases filled with information from scanners operated by law enforcement and private companies across the country.

But the plan sparked objections from privacy advocates who feared the program would also track the movements of ordinary citizens not suspected of criminal activity.

Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University who also serves on a DHS data privacy subcommittee, told Ars Technica that the effort was “deeply disturbing.”

“[This is] a classic example of expanding data collection and centralization, concerning people who have done nothing to warrant suspicion, without a clearly defined purpose or the legally required privacy impact analysis,” he said. “‘Build it first and worry about privacy and purpose later’—it is the same disease that has infected the NSA and so much of our government. This type of dragnet search is the modern equivalent of the general search that [the Constitution’s] framers were so anxious to guard against.”

The decision to cancel the program came from the very top: DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the solicitation “was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership.”

“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,” she said in a prepared statement.

News of the plan surfaced in mid-February after The Washington Post reported ICE solicited proposals from companies to compile a database of license plate information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers.

-Noel Brinkerhoff

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