Americans fear privacy violations as DHS plans mass surveillance on cars
19 February 2014, 22:56
The US Department of Homeland Security is planning to establish a nationwide license-plate recognition database that would collect information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers. It is supposed that the agency would collect data from license-plate readers that rapidly scan the tags of passing vehicles. This, as the project's initiators are claiming, would help track down and arrest fugitive illegal immigrants.
This plan has stirred protests from many people, who are claiming that this would be an infringement of the right for privacy.
The Washington Post writes that the DHS recently issued a solicitation notice seeking bids for this project.
The newspaper quotes Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, saying that the database 'could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.'
'It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government,' Ms. Christensen adds.
What probably concerns the project's opponents most of all is the fact that the project does not specify what privacy safeguards would be implemented, would allow government agencies to scrutinize the travel habits of ordinary citizens who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says: 'Ultimately, you're creating a national database of location information. When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they're going through their life.'
As for the American Civil Liberties Union, it does not in fact object to law enforcement officials checking license plates to locate and arrest criminals. Still, at the same time, the union says that the government's increased use of such devices raises concerns for potential abuse.
Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, calls this plan 'yet another example of the government's appetite for tools of mass surveillance'.
Ms. Crump adds that license-plate readers pose substantial privacy risks because they can aggregate millions of license-plate hits.
'That poses the possibility of charting people's movements in great detail over time,' she says.
Digital Recognition Network Inc. of Fort Worth, which makes license-plate readers, sued Utah's government last week, arguing that a new state ban on license-plate scanning by private companies infringes on its free-speech rights to collect and disseminate the information it captures, and has effectively put it out of business there.
The company says it is not a police agency. Nor can it access in bulk federally protected driver data that personally identifies the letters and numbers it collects from license plates in public. The company says it only wants to find cars that have been stolen or repossessed, not to cull large swaths of data and incriminate people from their travel habits.
Debates about the conflict between the necessity to collect information about individuals suspected of criminal activities and people's right for privacy have been going on since former employee of the National Security Agency Edward Snowden has revealed facts about NSA's interceptions of people's private phone talks and E-mail correspondence.
Some state legislatures have been unhappy with the speed with which the Congress has pushed for reform. Their proposals include a Colorado law that would limit the retention of images from license-plate readers, an Oregon bill that would require 'urgent circumstances' to obtain cellphone location data and a Delaware plan designed to enhance privacy protections for text messages.
Voice of Russia, Fox News
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|