This time, the department is not looking for a contractor to build a database. Rather, they're seeking access to a commercial system that already exists, according to a solicitation for bids made public Thursday. Officials say contracting for that access would enhance their crime-fighting capability and, since their previous attempt, formulate a plan to minimize privacy concerns.
But many of the same privacy advocates who criticized last year's DHS attempt as overly intrusive say little has changed and that such comprehensive data collection amounts to warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans.
"I'm troubled by DHS's plan to access license-plate data," said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who works on privacy and open government issues. "It doesn't appear from the privacy impact assessment that DHS has developed meaningful policies to protect privacy in this vast database of highly sensitive location information."
Either mounted on moving patrol cars or in fixed locations, license-plate readers collect license plate information, global positioning system coordinates, a vehicle's make and model, images of the license plate and the date and time a car passes its location.
Over time, these license-plate readers can amass millions of records that can collectively be used to decipher the daily habits and whereabouts of law-abiding motorists.
Local and regional law-enforcement agencies already use these systems, and billions of these records already exist. Police officers say they're a key tool in finding stolen cars and stopping child abductors. In the request for proposal issued last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under DHS purview, said such information could also be used to ensnare "criminal aliens and absconders."
Existing databases used by law enforcement already house millions of records, and little is known about how different agencies may share these records. One of the chief criticisms from privacy advocates is that there are no clear standards on how this information is shared and how long agencies can retain records on motorists suspected of no wrongdoing.
The new DHS proposal acknowledges that ongoing retention of this data exacerbates privacy concerns "the longer the data is held by the vendor." It establishes a policy that LPR data would be stored for five years, though it notes there could be exceptions approved by a supervisor in which the data is held for longer periods.
DHS and ICE intend to ask the vendor to create an "alert list," for which police officers could store license-plate queries and then receive notifications when a license plate is spotted. The agencies will require police officers to review those lists on an annual basis and remove license-plate numbers if they no longer have "adequate justification" for monitoring them.
To curb the potential for abuse, officials said in their privacy assessment that each system query must be attached to a particular investigation and that they encourage ongoing audits of the program.
While Homeland Security's plans remain controversial, other federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency already use license-plate reader data in their investigations.
The DEA program operated in secret for seven years until the American Civil Liberties Union learned about it in documents received in a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year. Among the revelations: the DEA collaborated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on a plan to collect data via license-plate readers strategically positioned outside a Phoenix-area gun show in 2009.
Such a plan was never implemented, DEA officials said, but the plan demonstrated how license-plate reader data could be used to draw connections between law-abiding citizens. Monitoring those connections could have a chilling effect on citizens' inclination to congregate, whether at a church, political rally, or in this case, a gun show, the ACLU said.
Now, such concerns appear again with the DHS proposal.
"If this goes forward," Gregory T. Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology tells the Washington Post, "DHS will have warrantless access to location information going back at least five years about virtually every adult driver in the U.S."