See update below.
Immigrations, Customs Enforcement wants to firm up its relationship with Vigilant Solutions, the most dominant actor in the increasingly powerful license plate reader industry, to enable agents to more efficiently track down people they want to deport. Vigilant maintains a national database, called the National Vehicle Location Service, containing information revealing the sensitive driving histories of millions of law-abiding people. According to the company, the database currently contains nearly 2 billion discrete records of our movements, and grows by almost 100 million records per month.
In a widely reported but largely misunderstood solicitation for bids, DHS announced that it wants access to a nationwide license plate reader database, along with technology enabling agents to capture and view data from the field, using their smartphones. Reading the solicitation, I was struck by the fact that it almost perfectly describes Vigilant’s system. It’s almost as if the solicitation was written by Vigilant, it so comprehensively sketches out the contours of the corporation’s offerings.
Lots of news reports are misinterpreting DHS’ solicitation, implying that the agency wants to either build its own database or ask a contractor to build one. The department doesn’t intend to build its own license plate reader database, and it isn’t asking corporations to build one. Instead, it is seeking bids from private companies that already maintain national license plate reader databases. And because it’s the only company in the country that offers precisely the kind of services that DHS wants, there’s about a 99.9 percent chance that this contract will be awarded to Vigilant Solutions. (Mark my words.)
According to documents obtained by the ACLU, ICE agents and other branches of DHS have already been tapping into Vigilant’s data sets for years. So why did the agency decide to go public with this solicitation now? Your guess is as good as mine, but it may simply be a formality so that the agency can pretend as if there was actually robust competition in the bidding process. (As recent reporting about the FBI’s secretive surveillance acquisitions has shown, no-bid contracts for spy gear tend to raise eyebrows when they’re finally discovered.)
What’s the problem with a nationwide license plate tracking database, anyway? If you aren't the subject of a criminal investigation, the government shouldn't be keeping tabs on when you go to the grocery store, your friend's house, the abortion clinic, the antiwar protest, or the mosque. In a democratic society, we should know almost everything about what the government's doing, and it should know very little to nothing about us, unless it has a good reason to believe we're up to no good and shows that evidence to a judge. Unfortunately, that basic framework for an open, democracy society has been turned on its head. Now the government routinely collects vast troves of data about hundreds of millions of innocent people, casting everyone as a potential suspect until proven innocent. That's unacceptable.
Surveillance state apologists and profiteers tell us that license plates are only photographed when they are in public view, where they claim we have no right to privacy. But what these people (perhaps purposefully) fail to understand is that the constitution is a floor, not a ceiling. (Also, there are signs that courts may in fact find historical data-mining of license plate reader databases unconstitutional.) We can make whatever laws we want to restrict the ways in which law enforcement and intelligence organizations compile, access, and use data about us. If we the people want to pass a law that says police must get a warrant to track our physical locations using historical license plate reader data held by private corporations or other departments, we can do that.
And that’s exactly what we plan to do. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of federal agencies and local police accessing enormous troves of data showing everywhere you’ve ever driven, and when, take action. We don’t have to live in a dystopian surveillance state if we don’t want to, no matter what DHS or private corporations have to say about it.
Knowledge is power. Granting state, local, and federal law enforcement access to databases showing everywhere we've ever driven is handing the government far too much control over our lives. Contrary to lots of press reports, this is already happening nationwide. But it's not too late to stop it.
UPDATE: DHS says that ICE leadership was not consulted about this solicitation, and that it has been withdrawn. Jury's out about whether or not ICE leadership is aware that its agents have already been accessing data in Vigilant's nationwide license plate reader database for years. Will they now look into it? Stay tuned…