Analysis: DHS Explores Mass Surveillance of Car Trips

fujji/Shutterstock.com

The government wants a national database noting where license plates were spotted. Congress should regulate the runaway data-collection industry instead.

The automobile has afforded greater freedom to so many different kinds of Americans: the mad dreamers portrayed in On the Road; the post-World War II families who suddenly had the means to pack their kids in the backseat and vacation a thousand miles from home; the Jim Crow-era blacks for whom cars were an alternative to racist public-transportation systems; the generations of American teenagers who cruised the local strip in their own versions ofAmerican Graffiti. This heritage is dear to many, and helps explain popular opposition to policies as diverse as toll roads, speed cameras, and permitting the Transportation Security Administration to expand its operations on the nation's highways. All challenge a romantic preference for an America where anyone can climb into a car, fill up, and drive wherever they damn well please unimpeded. 

Sympathetic as I am to that broad vision, its adherents sometimes resist sound reforms. The nation would be better off with better public-transportation infrastructure, more bike lanes, and lower carbon emissions. All of this can be accomplished without coercing anyone out of their cars. Meanwhile, a far more profound threat to the significant freedoms automobiles afford has garnered very little attention, and hardly any backlash, in part because it's been implemented so quietly: The U.S. government is pushing for infrastructure that could track every car trip we take. 

Is the relative anonymity the open road has long afforded something we're ready to give up? In an up or down vote, I'm confident the American people would say, "Hell no." But automatic license-plate readers threaten much of the privacy we've always enjoyed, on the road and at our destinations of choice, as never before.

These devices garnered a bit of attention last summer, when the ACLU reportedon how many states and localities have installed them on patrol cars, bridges, and highway overpasses, where they capture images of every passing vehicle. The intention is often to find stolen cars or to catch drivers evading warrants for their arrest. Yet in most cases, "these systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location whereall vehicles are seen—not just the data of vehicles that generate hits," the ACLU explained. "All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems .... All too frequently, these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used." 

The potential for abuse was obvious.

Now the federal government intends to build a national license-plate-reader database. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told Ars Technicathat Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), "is exploring the ability to obtain access to a National License Plate Recognition database—allowing officers and agents to identify subjects of ongoing criminal investigations." 

The Washington Post got an official response too. "It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise," ICE said, "and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government." Is that supposed to reassure? A private database that's inaccessible to the government would offer some protections. So would a government database that no private entity could exploit. A database of our movements that is privately held and accessible to the government is the worst possible combination.

The logic of license-plate monitoring is similar to that used by NSA officials who insist on collecting data on the phone calls of millions in hopes of catching a few bad guys. If the federal government has its way, the car trips of millions of innocents will be collected and stored in a database. Drive somewhere in 2014, and 10 years from now a bureaucrat could look up where you went on a given Tuesday. 

The potential for abuse is obvious. So is the contempt the people behind the policy have for democracy. A proposal to significantly expand surveillance on everyday life ought to have been debated by the public. Instead, it was discovered when the government posted an ad so it could build the national license-plate database. Those behind the effort apparently didn't see a need for public buy-in. 

The technology has been abused before. For example, "Virginia State Police recorded the license plates of cars attending campaign rallies for President Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 and 2009," CJ Ciaramella notes in the Washington Free Beacon. "A police officer in Washington, D.C., pled guilty to extortion in 1998 after using ALRP data to blackmail drivers who frequented a local gay bar." License-plate readers also present a new way for law enforcement to get around constitutional protections. In United States v. Jonesthe Supreme Court put limits on police eager to place GPS trackers on cars without a warrant. With the proliferation of license-plate readers and the prospect of a central database where information from all of them is stored, there would be no need to rely on GPS trackers on individual cars. Every vehicle's movements would be tracked constantly for the possibility of later review. 

Stopping this plan for a national database isn't enough. As the Washington Post reports:

Vigilant’s National Vehicle Location Service (NLVS), which holds more than 1.8 billion records, is offered to law enforcement agencies across the country. ICE has tested the service at no charge, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request...

Only a handful of companies gather license-plate data on a national scale, industry officials said. But DRN and Vigilant are 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, chief executive of Locator Technologies, another company in that field.

In other words, private industry is already collecting this information. Depending on where you live, it's very likely they've captured your movements on many occasions. The information resides indefinitely on a hard drive somewhere.

There's no need for Americans to submit to this type of mass surveillance. So why are we doing it?

(Image via fujji/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.