NSA isn’t the only over reach

A plan by the Department of Homeland security to establish a national license-plate recognition database that would collect information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers is raising concerns over privacy and how the data might be scrutinized.

The Washington Post reports that the agency recently issued a solicitation notice seeking bids for the database project, which would collect data from license-plate readers that rapidly scan the tags of passing vehicles, to help track down and arrest fugitive illegal immigrants.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency told the newspaper 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,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.

Civil liberties groups are concerned that the proposal, which 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 wrongdoing, The Post reported.

“Ultimately, you’re creating a national database of location information,” Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the newspaper. “When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they’re going through their life.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said it does not object to law enforcement officials checking license plates to locate and arrests felons, but the organization has warned that the government’s increased use of such devices raises concerns for potential abuse, The Post reported.

“This is yet another example of the government’s appetite for tools of mass surveillance,” said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Crump told The Associated Press 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 said.

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 case is an early example of pushback as Congress and state legislatures consider proposals to rein in phone-records collection, drones and license-plate readers. At least 14 states are considering measures that would curb such collections.

The Texas company says it’s not a police agency — law enforcement already is exempt from the ban under Utah’s new law — 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 said 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.

Revelations about surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency have driven a sustained debate since summer on the balance between privacy and government intrusion. Classified NSA documents, leaked to news organizations, showed the NSA was collecting telephone records, emails and video chats of millions of Americans who were not suspected of a crime.

Some state legislatures have been unhappy with the speed 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.

Click here for more from The Washington Post.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.