DHS retools license plate reader proposal

A previous effort to obtain license plate reader capabilities was terminated after public outcry over privacy concerns.

Shutterstock image (by Bruce Rolff): eyes in a binary tunnel.

What: The Department of Homeland Security is drafting a request for proposals for a commercially based license plate reader service.

Why: DHS and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement directorate have been looking into how to provide license plate reader (LPR) capabilities through a private vendor to aid ICE agents in investigations. A previous effort to establish such a service through private vendors in February 2014, was ultimately scotched by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson after public outcry over privacy concerns.

The database would draw from a wide variety of sources such as toll road or parking lot cameras, vehicle repossession companies and law enforcement agencies. Those sources, however, are already tapped by private companies, like vehicle repossession firms, to find vehicles and potentially people.

The latest draft RFP, issued April 2, takes pains to address those privacy concerns. DHS repeatedly says in the draft that "ICE is neither seeking to build nor contribute to a national public or private LPR database." It will draw on companies that use similar public imaging sources.

The privacy impact assessment for the system said LPR, combined with other data, can identify individuals and is therefore officially considered personally identifiable information that is provided special protections under federal law.

In the PIA, ICE said it was being transparent with its intentions to use a commercial provider to expand the database information available to its agents and not attempting to build its own database to track people. "Rather, ICE is seeking an enterprise-wide commercial solution to help it more efficiently develop leads based on the location of vehicles that are associated with ICE criminal investigations and civil enforcement actions."

In defining the enterprise-wide solution it's looking for, ICE outlined privacy requirements it said will guide acquisition of LPR information from commercial vendors aimed at minimizing the potential impact on individuals’ rights and privacy.

The draft said requirements include time limits on search capabilities; internal policy controls that ensure queries are conducted only on active cases; and strong auditing requirements. ICE said it also intends to develop specific user training highlighting limitations and protections on queries and the use of LPR data to promote privacy and civil liberties. It's also looking to develop a mobile app that allows agents to send and receive search information in the field.

ICE said the database system will be used by its law enforcement personnel for both immigration enforcement and criminal investigations.

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