Fine, but it’s a perverse reality that the Snowden leaks have made me more of a fatalist about these things. If they’re dropping the license plate database, I suspect it’s not because they think they’ve crossed some line of propriety. It’s because there are more efficient ways, either already extant or under development, to track people’s locations. The progress of surveillance technology is remorseless.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday ordered the cancellation of a plan by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to seek a national license plate tracking system…
The idea behind the national license-plate recognition database, which would have drawn data from readers that scan the tags of every vehicle crossing their paths, was to help catch fugitive illegal immigrants, according to a DHS solicitation. But the plan raised concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion could be scrutinized.
“The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been cancelled,” ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. “While we continue to support a range of technologies to help meet our law enforcement mission, this solicitation will be reviewed to ensure the path forward appropriately meets our operational needs.”
Here’s Ed’s post on the license plate plan from this morning. What’s a more efficient way than scanning plates to track someone’s whereabouts? By their cell phone, of course, a program the NSA spent two years quietly testing in 2010 and 2011. That’s not a perfect solution, needless to say; sometimes you won’t know a target’s phone number, just their plate. But as the feds’ ability to process information grows, there may be workarounds for cars. E.g., if you had comprehensive DMV records and auto manufacturer records, you might be able to match a particular plate to a particular VIN and then that VIN to a serial number for some electronic component of the car that could be tracked remotely. It’s the same point I made earlier in the “smart gun” post about the “Internet of things.” In the near term, even basic appliances will be able to communicate with each other. Cars already do, in fact. If the feds can, with a little effort, read your e-mails, presumably they’ll figure out a way to “listen” to your car too and zero in on its location without needing to read the plate. And in the slightly longer term, as wearable tech like Google Glass and smartwatches catch on, it’ll be easier to track you personally. All of this seems to me unavoidable. Even if public pressure convinces Congress to close off some channels of surveillance, capacity through other channels will grow and make up the difference.
The one novelty of the license plate program, I think, is that it was under DHS’s umbrella, not the NSA’s. Not only that, but they were seeking to justify it as a weapon in the fight against — ahem — illegal immigration. That’s an unusually draconian step for a government controlled by a party that’s already under fire from immigration advocates for being too aggressive in deporting illegals, and which stands to benefit politically from higher rates of illegal border-crossing. Maybe this was a halting first attempt at bringing massive surveillance dragnets out of the realm of counterterrorism and into the area of more mundane law enforcement and DHS simply miscalculated how the public would receive it after nine months of Snowden-driven upset. Too soon. For now.