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A little too much license for Homeland Security

ASK THIS | August 19, 2008

Marc Rotenberg writes that news reports on the government’s push to track vehicles by recording license plates have overlooked important issues, such as who the vendors will be, who will make sure the rules are being followed, and how the program will be evaluated.

By Marc Rotenberg

In the past week, both the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that the Department of Homeland Security has ambitious plans to track vehicles and record license plate numbers.

“Operation Sentinel” in New York, like the system planned for the nation's capital, will rely upon mobile and stationary hi-tech license plate readers to identify vehicles. Computer programs will then run the tags through databases, presumably to find matches to terrorist suspects -- but also to build more detailed profiles of Americans.

In typical fashion, privacy concerns are casually dismissed, while the underlying technology, the vendors involved, or even the rationale for the programs go unexplored beyond the recounting of some press-release anecdotes.

What’s needed is some serious reporting.

Q. What laws will limit the collection and use of this data? Federal agencies are showing little regard for federal and state privacy laws. What laws do the people backing this program plan to follow?

Q. Who are the vendors for the license plate project and what is their record? Vendors for many hi-tech projects are losing data at an alarming rate. Most recently Clear, the fast lane for airline travelers, lost information on 33,000 customers. A state Department contractor let its employees snoop through the passport records of the presidential candidates. What is the record of the companies that will collect license plate data?

Q. How will these systems be evaluated? Is there any hard data that shows that this is an effective public safety technique?

Q. What is the long-term plan? Already Homeland Security-funded surveillance cameras are being upgraded with new techniques that make possible actual identification in public spaces. What is next for the license plate reading devices -- weaponry to take out a vehicle suspected of carrying an IED?

Q. Extra credit: why won't the bad guys switch license plates or vehicles as they always have?

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