We’re glad to see the government back off its proposal to create an enormous database of license plates after an outcry over the potential for abuse of the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.
The Homeland Security Department abruptly dropped plans to ask a private company to give the government access to a nationwide database of license plate tracking information. Secretary Jeh Johnson nixed the contract proposal issued last week. The proposal indicated Immigration and Customs Enforcement was planning to use the license plate data in pursuit of criminal immigrants and others sought by authorities. An ICE spokeswoman said the contract solicitation was posted “without the awareness of ICE leadership.” Whoops.
We have nothing against the pursuit of criminals. Just a natural discomfort with the thought of vacuuming up information about the movements of everyone without some privacy protections.
Law enforcement has been using license plate readers, which take pictures of license plates as they pass, for years. It helps the good guys catch the bad guys.
But privacy advocates are right to be concerned over the unchecked collection of such information and the possibility that average citizens could thus be more easily tracked. Because of those concerns, at least 14 states are considering measures that would curb surveillance efforts, including the use of license plate readers.
But the federal government wanted much more than license plate information. In addition to the date, time and location of the vehicle, the government wanted a photo of the vehicle, and presumably its occupants. Homeland Security also wanted instant and around-the-clock access to the records and requested that whoever wins the contract work to make the information available through a smartphone app.
How convenient. And potentially dangerous, since there was no indication how long the individual records would be kept, what other government agencies would have access to them and what would be done to prevent abuses. Technology is making it easier all the time to move closer and closer to a Big Brother world. We shouldn’t be using that technology to snoop just because it’s possible.
Unchecked government data collection revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has startled Americans, but this latest proposal clearly went too far.
The government has to safeguard the American people. But that effort also has to recognize privacy lines that can’t be crossed without some evidence of wrongdoing.