Feds scale back proposal for license plate tracking system

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The Department of Homeland Security is scaling back its request to hire an outside company to keep track of people’s license plates, now saying it only needs half the country.

While the department had originally announced that it wanted a company to keep tabs on license plates throughout the nation, it now claims to only want data from “at least 25 states” and 24 of the 30 most populated metropolitan areas. 

Additionally, instead of requiring that the service make at least 30 million license plate records available each month, now the department says that it only needs at least 6 million.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — the division of DHS looking for the contract — said that the changes were merely alterations to attract more solicitations from contractors. Still, they could amount to greater flexibility in carrying out the controversial DHS initiative first unveiled a month ago.

“ICE modified the solicitation based on feedback from vendors requesting that the minimum threshold for records be lowered in order to facilitate greater competition,” spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement.

“ICE has not scaled back the scope or protections,” She added. “We have lowered some of the minimum requirements to allow additional commercial vendors to participate in this acquisition.”

In a contract solicitation posted online, the department has asked companies to offer up access to a commercial license plate reader database that it can search to track the automobiles of immigrant targets and criminal suspects.

“The results of the queries can assist in identifying the location of aliens who are immigration enforcement priorities, to include aliens with certain criminal convictions, absconders, illegal re-entrants and those that pose a public safety or national security risk,” it said in the solicitation.

“ICE will also use [license plate reader] information obtained from the commercial database to further its criminal law enforcement mission,” it added, including fraud and the trafficking of arms, narcotics and humans.

The changes to the proposal were revealed in an amendment to the solicitation posted on Friday. 

In its notice, the government agency has made clear that it has no intention of building a license plate tracking database of its own.

Instead, it merely wants access to an existing commercial database, which are employed by various police departments as well as repossession companies and others. The systems are updated with information from those public and private organizations as well as toll roads and parking lots, among other sources.

The new DHS effort comes a year after it abandoned a previous attempt to build its own license plate reading system in the face of opposition about its impact on Americans’ privacy.  

— Updated at 4:41 p.m.