Last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a Privacy Impact Assessment about plans to hire a private company to use license plate readers to track drivers’ movements and locations. It acknowledges the privacy concerns that come with tracking citizens’ movements and it suggests some limitations on the largely unchecked power that the federal government currently has to track people — but it appears that Homeland Security is still planning to track the movements of every driver on the road. Unsurprisingly, the ACLU has a problem with this.
This isn’t the first time that Homeland Security has tried to put a driver-tracking program into place. Previously, it had developed a plan to pay for access to a national license plate tracker database, but public outcry led to that being canceled in February 2014. People were shocked to find out that the federal government wanted to use more than 2 billion license plate scans and collect 70 million new ones every month, allowing for the it to gather huge amounts of information on people’s movements and locations.
On the positive side, Homeland Security does at least recognize that the data gathered by license plate readers is “Personally Identifiable Information.” That may sound like an obvious fact, but not everybody in law enforcement agrees, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It also recognizes that the data in aggregate will provide a large number of details about citizens’ private lives, which could create issues with the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
One of the limits that the Privacy Impact Assessment suggests would not allow investigators to search for a partial plate or request a list of all the plates from a specific location or time period. Assuming that Homeland Security stuck to that policy, it would stop agents from arbitrarily searching or conducting “fishing expeditions.” Additionally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wouldn’t contribute information to the database and would undergo regular audits and reviews to ensure ethical practices.
The ACLU has major objections to the rest of the Privacy Impact Assessment, though. There is good reason to use license plate readers to look for wanted vehicles, but using that technology to build a database and track the movements of citizens who aren’t suspected of any wrongdoing crosses a line. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s proposal calls that sort of information “useful” and relies on being able to have access to a database of where drivers are, where they go, and where they’ve been in the past.
Privacy issues aside, the ACLU also objects to the fact that ICE’s proposal does not specifically require contracted companies to have a nondiscrimination policy in place. While it’s illegal for Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to gather information based on race or ethnicity, they could still use data that was gathered that way, effectively allowing for the federal government to skirt discrimination laws. If the U.S. government pays a company to gather information, it only makes sense that it should have to follow the same policies and laws as the government.
One other issue the ACLU has is that while ICE would only be able to query data from the past five years, data from such a broad time period would paint an incredibly detailed picture of an individual’s life. Plus, permission from a supervisor would override that time limit, effectively putting no limitations on how far back Immigration and Customs Enforcement can access information. It’s also important to note that Homeland Security has no official policies limiting what it can do with the license plate readers it owns and operates itself.
The issues of the federal government abusing its power and overstepping its authority are serious, but even the existence of such a large database is cause for concern. That information isn’t just valuable to various law enforcement agencies — it’s also valuable to foreign governments and hackers. There is the threat of such a database being hacked and millions of people’s location information being compromised.
The concerns about privacy are definitely serious. It’s hard to think about the federal government monitoring every movement of every citizen without making the jump to George Orwell’s 1984. And as Jay Stanley of the ACLU said, “It violates the longstanding tenet that the government not monitor citizens unless it has individualized suspicion of involvement in wrongdoing.”
Drivers in the United States should not have to worry that they’re being tracked every time they get in their car. While license plate readers are a more technologically advanced method of doing so, this program would be no different from the federal government having a police officer tail every car on the road just to make sure it knows where everyone is and what they’re doing. In such a situation, the public outcry would be deafening, but it appears that the invisible nature of the current scenario has contributed to less controversy.
With more coverage, it’s hard to imagine people knowing that they’re being tracked everywhere they drive and still being OK with it. Perhaps the ACLU’s objection will lead to more exposure and have the Department of Homeland Security walk back its plans. Then again, maybe it’s time to just accept that Big Brother is here to stay.