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ICE seeks a License Plate Reader service: Take Two

The Washington Post has a story today highlighting the fact that Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued a new solicitation entitled “Access to License Plate Reader Commercial Data Service”, a second attempt by ICE to procure such a service after a previous solicitation was withdrawn last year following a round of media scrutiny. As the Post story notes, the DHS Privacy Office also recently completed a review of ICE’s “Acquisition and Use of License Plate Reader Data from a Commercial Service”; the completion of this review likely provided the basis for ICE to move forward with this solicitation.

The Privacy Office’s review of this matter is thorough in its analysis of the relevant issues, and makes it clear that ICE would not be developing its own LPR database, but instead would simply be establishing a query capability that can be used against known subjects of investigations or enforcement actions, consistent with ICE’s well-established law enforcement authorities. This is a standard tool now for U.S. law enforcement at all levels of government, an issue that may be worthy of a broader national policy debate, building on the analysis within this 2014 report from RAND. But given that the adoption of these capabilities is already the prevailing reality today, there is no justifiable reason why one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the country should not also have uniform access to such a capability.

Furthermore, the DHS Privacy Office report also notes the variety of safeguards that will be put in place with ICE’s access to such a service, including required training of ICE officers, specified purpose policies, and audit capabilities to detect and deter misuse. These safeguards should help to provide the general public that such a capability will not be misused, and senior leaders at DHS and ICE will need to be watchful to make sure that it is not.

Despite the concerns expressed by a couple of the critics in the Washington Post piece, it is likely that ICE’s procurement of this service will now move forward. The real lesson from this story and the earlier firestorm over this issue in 2014, is that DHS and its components need to be more proactive in socializing such new projects and proposals with key stakeholders (including Congress) and the media early on in the planning process. Too often in DHS’s history, new projects make their first public appearance in a solicitation on FedBizOpps or as a passing reference in a job posting on USAJobs. After such projects are publicly uncovered, the critics often drive the media narrative, DHS reacts slowly, and those who would be generally inclined to support such projects are provided with scant information on which to base such arguments. This ICE/LPR issue will hopefully serve as a useful case study about how the Department can better vet and socialize similar projects in the future.