Homeland Security wants a national license plate database

In an effort to improve their ability to track and apprehend criminals, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seeking a private company to build a national license-plate tracking system. But the proposal for the program does not yet indicate how peoples’ privacy would be maintained, alarming some civil liberties advocates, according to the Washington Post.

A database would be constructed from license-plate readers employed by both local police and commercial companies using cameras that capture photos of vehicles. With a national database, DHS agents would be able to compare license plate information against a “hot list” that tracks wanted individuals. The system would help the agency locate fugitive illegal immigrants.

The database “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), told the Post.

“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,” Christensen pointed out.

Civil liberties groups have warned against the creation of a national database – that could contain more than 1 billion records and be shared among various law-enforcement agencies -- that tracks peoples’ locations at all times. DHS has not yet laid out any privacy safeguards, and would leave questions like how long data is stored up to the company that creates the database.

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

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.