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This federal agency is about to start tracking license plates all across America AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A federal agency has contracted for access to a national database of billions of license plate records which includes real-time tracking capability. The deal was signed earlier this month, The Verge reports, and now the agency can access “a massive vehicle-tracking network generating as many as 100 million sightings per month, each tagged with a date, time, and GPS coordinates of the sighting” using information sourced from private companies and government cameras alike.

The agency in question is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its agents will be able to search by license plate number to see every location a car has been seen for the past five years.

As is typical with this sort of mass surveillance apparatus, ICE is selling the scheme as a limited measure to keep us safe. Its purpose is to track “criminal investigations or priority aliens” in unusual situations, like “when other leads have gone cold.” See, ICE says, this is just for the really bad people who are really hard to catch.

Oh, and anyway, everyone else is doing it. “Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” an ICE representative told The Verge in a statement.

And ICE will totally be discrete with the information they learn, the statement continued: “ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader database, and will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract.”

RARE POV: Republicans reject limited government when it comes to surveillance

Consider me skeptical. It’s true, certainly, that license plate trackers are already being used and abused by federal law enforcement agencies, as well as their state and local counterparts. Here are some examples of that abuse the ACLU compiled:

  • A police officer in Washington D.C. pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of cars near a gay bar and blackmailing the car’s owners.
  • The DEA contemplated using license plate readers to monitor people who were at a gun show. Since the devices can’t distinguish between those who are selling illegal guns and those who aren’t, a person’s presence at the gun show would have landed them in a DEA database.
  • A SWAT team in Kansas raided a man’s house where his wife, 7-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son lived based in part on the mass monitoring of cars parked at a gardening store. The man was held at gunpoint for two hours while cops combed through his home. The police were looking for a marijuana growing operation. They did not find that or any other evidence of criminal activity in the man’s house.

Those three stories are not isolated incidents. In Boston, for example, police tracked license plates and then put all the information online, totally unprotected. What if a stalker had used it to track his target’s movements?

Defenders of this technology say it can help solve crimes, and no doubt it can. But that by itself is no argument. There are a lot of things that could help solve crimes which we rightly prohibit because that isn’t all they do. We don’t use the rack to extract confessions, for example, even though it might be helpful, to borrow ICE’s phrasing, “when other leads have gone cold.”

Whatever ICE claims, this program’s consequences will not be limited to really bad people. Innocent people, citizen and immigrant alike, will be negatively affected. Likewise, ICE’s promise not to build its own database or to contribute data to any other database is meaningless: The database already exists with a steady supply of new information, and ICE already has access to it, so there’s no need for ICE to build its own thing.

Wherever you stand on immigration, we do not need this new layer of unjustified mass surveillance. It is a fresh encroachment on our privacy and freedom, as ICE’s dishonest promises of responsibility make all too clear.

Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at www.bonniekristian.com or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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