United States Customs and Border Protection admitted that there is no practical way for Americans to avoid their movements being tracked by its license plate readers, according to its latest privacy assessment.
CBP released its new assessment – three years after its first – to inform the public that it plans to operate a commercial database, which aggregates license plate data from private and public sources, in the part of its border enforcement efforts.
The United States has an extensive network of license plate readers, usually found by the roadside, to collect and record the license plates of passing vehicles. License plate readers can capture thousands of license plates every minute. License plates are registered and stored in huge databases, which allow police and law enforcement to track millions of vehicles across the country.
The agency updated its privacy assessment in part because Americans “may not know” that the agency can collect their license plate data.
“CBP cannot provide timely notice of license plate readings obtained from various sources beyond its control,” said the privacy assessment. “Many areas of public and private property have signage warning people that the area is under surveillance; however, this posting does not systematically include a description of how and with whom this data may be shared. “
But buried in the document, the agency admitted: “The only way to opt out of this surveillance is to avoid the affected area, which can pose significant difficulties and be generally unrealistic.”
CBP set a similar tone in 2017 during a trial that scanned the faces of American travelers upon their departure from the United States, a decision that sparked the ire of civil liberties advocates at the time. CBP has told Americans that travelers who wish to opt out of face scanning should “refrain from traveling”.
The document added that the risk of confidentiality for Americans is “increased” because the agency “can access [license plate data] captured anywhere in the United States, “including outside the 100-mile border area within which CBP generally operates.
CBP said it would reduce the risk by only accessing license plate data if there is “circumstantial or supporting evidence” to advance the investigation, and would allow CBP officers to access the data only within five years from the date of the search.
A CBP spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the latest assessment.
CBP does not have the best track record with license plate data. Last year, CBP confirmed that a subcontractor, Perceptics, had incorrectly copied license plate data to “less than 100,000” people over a period of one and a half months to a point American entrance to the southern border. The agency subsequently suspended its contract with Perceptics.