The Edmond Sun

Nation & World

February 19, 2014

Homeland Security sets sights on national database of license plates

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to create a national license plate tracking system that would give the agency access to vast amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement license plate readers, according to a government proposal that does not specify what privacy safeguards would be put in place.

The "national license plate recognition database service," which would draw data from readers that scan the tag of every vehicle crossing their paths, would help catch fugitive undocumented immigrants, according to a DHS solicitation. But the database could easily contain more than 1 billion records and may be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion also could be scrutinized.

A spokeswoman for DHS' Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stressed that the database "could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals.

The database will enhance agents' and officers' ability to locate suspects who could pose a threat to public safety and should reduce the time required to conduct surveillance, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.

"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 said.

But civil liberties groups are not assuaged. "Ultimately you're creating a national database of location information," said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they're going through their life."

ICE last week issued a notice seeking bids from companies to compile the database from a variety of sources, including law enforcement agencies and car-repossession services.

Agents would be able to use a smartphone to snap pictures of license plates that can be compared against a "hot list" of plates in a database. They would have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access, according to the solicitation, which was first noted last week by bloggers.

"The government would prefer a close-up of the plate and a zoomed-out image of the vehicle," the document said. The images would go in a case file report that would also include maps and registration information, as well as car make and model.

Across the country, local police as well as commercial companies are gathering license plate data using various means. One common method involves drivers for repossession companies methodically driving up and down streets with cameras mounted on their cars snapping photos of vehicles. Some police forces have cameras mounted on patrol cars. Other images may be retrieved from border crossings, interstate highway on-ramps and toll booth plazas.

"The technology in use today basically replaces an old analog function — your eyeballs," said Chris Metaxas, chief executive officer of DRN, a subsidiary of Vigilant Solutions, which operates one of the largest warehouses of license plate data in the country. "It's the same thing as a guy holding his head out the window, looking down the block and writing license plate numbers down and comparing them against a list. The technology just makes things better and more productive."

Vigilant's National Vehicle Location Service, which currently holds more than 1.8 billion records, is offered to law enforcement agencies across the country. ICE has tested NVLS for free, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request.

"The results have been excellent, accounting for approximately 100 arrests in a 6-month time period," said one of the DHS documents obtained by the ACLU dated Jan. 9, 2012. "Some of the cases that resulted in arrests were formerly thought to be cold cases."

In one 2010 case, a mother and two adult children began using a P.O. box after they were ordered to be deported, according to the document. Three vehicles were registered to a house the family owned, but the house was rented out and the cars were never parked there. Two of the three vehicles were found, at different addresses, using NVLS, the document stated.

Some questions about ICE's plan remain open. The agency could not say how long the data would be stored, what other law enforcement agencies would have access to it and what constitutes an "investigative lead" to permit database querying.

The FBI since 2004 has partnered with nearly every state and dozens of local agencies to compare license plates against the National Crime Information Center database and said the data has located more than 800 wanted persons. The bureau has been working on a privacy impact assessment on its license plate reader program since early 2012, but to date no assessment has been made public, said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group.

Customs and Border Protection, another DHS agency, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is part of the Justice Department, have also deployed cameras along the country's borders.

But DHS' effort appears to be the first time a federal law enforcement agency is seeking such extensive access to a broad repository of data capturing the movements and images of American motorists from metropolitan areas around the country.

The ACLU said it has no objection to law enforcement checking license plates to see if they're associated with a stolen car or a felon evading arrest. But the government's access to a storehouse of vast amounts of data on ordinary, law-abiding citizens raised concerns of potential abuse, advocates said. "This is yet another example of the government's appetite for tools of mass surveillance," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU, which issued a report last year that criticized the growing use of the devices without adequate privacy protections.

DHS' effort arises as states across the country are confronting policy choices about the use of license plate readers. Laws vary across jurisdictions on how long data can be stored and who may have access. Some delete the data after 48 hours. Others keep it indefinitely. Some 20 states have passed or proposed legislation that would restrict the use of such readers or the storage of the data. Utah has a law prohibiting commercial companies from using automated high speed cameras to photograph license plates. Vigilant has filed a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the ban.

Earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly shelved for a year legislation that would have banned local police from collecting data from license plate readers. The state attorney general last year declared that collecting such data was illegal.

Maryland is considering legislation that would ban non-government deployment of license plate readers and regulate their use by government agencies.

There are only a handful of companies that gather license plate data on a national scale, industry officials said. But DRN and Vigilant are far and away the dominant players in the industry, with DRN capturing an estimated 70 percent of the commercial market and Vigilant about 90 percent of the law enforcement market, said Jack Bernstein, CEO of Locator Technologies, another company in that field.

"I know the data is really valuable," Bernstein said, "and I know the potential for abuse is significant."

1
Text Only
Nation & World
  • Blackmon.jpg Local cops arrest NFL player on marijuana complaint

    The Edmond Police Department has released the incident report related to the arrest of ex-Oklahoma State star and current NFL player Justin Blackmon.
    Blackmon, 24, a product of Plainview High School in Ardmore, is a 6-1, 210-pound wide receiver in his second year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At Oklahoma State University, he was a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as the country’s best collegiate wide receiver.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • A Q&A on ‘Obamacare’ Court Rulings

    On Tuesday, two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on the legality of tax subsidies being provided to people who bought “Obamacare” health insurance policies in Oklahoma and 35 other states.
    Here’s a look at the rulings’ potential impact in Oklahoma.

    Q: I’m confused. What did the courts rule today?
    A: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Washington, D.C., decided that the government can’t provide tax subsidies for Affordable Care Act plans purchased in 36 states where the federal government is operating the health insurance exchange. Oklahoma is one of the 36 states. A few hours later, the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Richmond, Va., issued a conflicting ruling that upheld the legality of the health-care law’s tax subsidies.

    July 22, 2014

  • June healthy month for Oklahoma jobs

    Nearly 10,000 new jobs in Oklahoma were created in June, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
    Gov. Mary Fallin said Tuesday the state experienced one of the largest increases in employment in the nation in June. More than 9,600 additional people joined the state’s workforce in June.
    The unemployment rate in June dropped to 4.5 percent, its lowest ratio in six years. June’s rate was down a percentage point from 4.6 percent in May and April, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

    July 22, 2014

  • Former OSU line coach having impact on Texas staff

    It was quite possibly the biggest coaching coup of the offseason and Oklahoma State was at the wrong end of it — former Cowboy offensive line coach Joe Wickline joining the staff for Charlie Strong’s Texas Longhorns.
    “It’s always good when you go hire staff and you look at just getting the right people within your program. And, a lot of times, guys know a lot of Xs and Os, but it’s all just about developing a player,” said Strong, Tuesday during the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days. “Joe and I, we’ve coached together at two different places. But just with him being within his conference and knowing the conference, he’s been a great asset.”

    July 22, 2014

  • UCO campus 3.jpg University of Central Oklahoma recognized as having friendly work environment

    The Chronicle of Higher Education named the University of Central Oklahoma as one of the “2014 Great Colleges to Work For.” Central is the only higher education institution in the state recognized on the list and one of only a handful of institutions in the nation given the distinction of being named to the Honor Roll for being cited most often among all the recognition categories.          
    Central joins Duke, Baylor and Notre Dame on the list of the 10 universities named to the large institution honor roll.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Sparring justices find little disagreement at the opera

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed a different view of U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday when she described about her passion for opera, one she shares with Justice Antonin Scalia.

    July 21, 2014

  • Experts: Ukraine airliner disaster has implications for U.S. security

    Use of surface-to-air missiles by extra-military personnel to shoot down civilian aircraft may be an emerging threat to the United States, a terrorism expert said.
    On Thursday, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam and was shot down over Ukraine near the Russian border. Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants — who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine, President Barack Obama said during a statement on the conflict in front of reporters at the White House.

    July 18, 2014

  • Rabbi, UCO professor provide Middle East perspectives

    Hours after Israel launched ground operations in the Gaza Strip, the leader of a metro synagogue and a UCO professor who was raised in the West Bank shared their thoughts about the escalating conflict.  
    During the latest cycle of violence sparked by the kidnapping and deaths of three Israeli teenagers that Israel blames on Hamas, the Jewish nation launched air strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

    July 18, 2014

  • spts-OC Rhein Gibson British Open.jpg OC alum Gibson holes pressure putt on 18, makes cut at British Open

    It was the biggest putt of Rhein Gibson’s life — which is saying something for a guy who once shot a world-record 55 — and the Oklahoma Christian alum and Edmond resident responded the way he has so many times before.
    A four-time NAIA All-American while at Oklahoma Christian University, Gibson made the 15-footer for a birdie on No. 18 as darkness descended at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, capping a 2-over-par 74 and allowing him to make the cut in the world’s most prestigious tournament.

    July 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • spts-Senior Open Josh Cook hands on hips.jpg ‘Cook’-ing up a championship golf course

    When the practice rounds began at the U.S. Senior Open July 7, the ramblings were almost non-stop.
    From the players who live at the course to professional golfers from across the ocean and diverse parts of the globe, the consensus was that Oak Tree National was in tremendous shape and the players were keyed up to compete on it.
    “The golf course is fantastic,” Oak Tree resident Bob Tway said on the first day of competition July 10. “It’s hard, but it’s fantastic.

    July 18, 2014 2 Photos