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Obama’s Dangerous Road to Data Privatization

A tool to track “illegal aliens” potentially to track everyone else?

February 25, 2014

Credit: Maksim Kabakou -

As if the boundless and deceptive telephone surveillance and other snooping of the NSA were not enough, the ever-so-vigilant United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now getting into “location information.” It wants to be sure it knows where U.S. citizens and others are within its borders at any given time.

To that end, DHS seeks to establish a national license plate recognition database base. It is based on data gathered by electronic readers that scan every license plate that passes them.

Given that the business of the U.S. federal government increasingly seems to be to pass the next contract on to the next corporation, DHS has published a solicitation asking for bids from private companies to compile the database from various sources.

Implying that a private vendor is preferable for this function, an official of the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) of DHS stated, “It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government.”

The new outsourcing wave

It was not so long ago that, to the U.S. economy’s and the American people’s great detriment, U.S. businesses led the way to outsourcing manufacturing beyond its shores, with known results. Corporate executives got richer in the process, while many American workers were shafted.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now banks on Americans’ curious, but deeply ingrained habit of trusting credit-card companies and banks more than the government. It’s a move that one would have expected from the Bush Administration – but not the Obama team.

The president used to stand tall in defense of civil liberties – until he took office. That takes some chutzpah.

Five years in, the Obama Administration evidently has just that. It seems convinced of the utter pliability and credulity of Americans, unfortunately.

Under the new scheme, regardless of who gathers the license plate data, ICE agents would have constant access to the information, purportedly to track “illegal aliens.” However, given what we know about the NSA’s practices, you would have to be naïve to believe they would not potentially track everyone else.

As has been known for some time, collecting and storing data on people in a form that can be analyzed automatically for patterns tells us far more about people’s activities and lives than a simple recorded phone call.

In a pattern all too familiar from the NSA modus operandi, ICE is all smoke and mirrors about the specifics of this program. It says the private vendor would determine how long the data are retained. Come again? The private sector is inherently trustworthier on data?

Dream on, Obama Administration!

Of course, private companies are anxious to use their technology to amass all the license plate data they can scoop up. Copious federal funding makes that even more delicious a prospect. Who in his right mind would pass up such a profit opportunity?

With the experience of the inglorious involvement of the Canada-based company CGI fresh in the collective minds of Americans during the rollout of Obamacare, one would have expected differently.

But the business of the Obama Administration, as was the case with the Clinton Administration, is to be very much in line with the Reagan/Bush tradition of creating business opportunities for private companies.

Part of the purpose of outsourcing such functions from a government agency to a private vendor is to make processes of accountability anything but transparent. In fact, it obscures those functions. That is perhaps the intended effect: The more “players” are involved, the less clear who is accountable.

To be sure, having those functions one or several steps away from the agency that should be responsible for safekeeping is anathema to transparency.

Enter Orwell

It fits that pattern that the ICE is mute about how long the data might be stored, which other agencies would have access to the data – and on what basis anyone could justify such access with regard to the movements of an individual.

That is as Orwellian as it gets. American constitutional history would suggest extreme vigilance. Instead, we are engaging in an unreflective love fest with Big Brother.

Given the NSA scandal, we are at a point where the old Reagan mantra “trust, but verify” comes in handy. He used that phrase to describe his stance toward dealing with the Soviets. It would seem advisable now for the American people to adopt that same Reagan standard toward their own government.

The fact that the chief executive of one private vendor admitted that the data are at once valuable and that abuse of them is potentially “significant” says it all. When business executives are more truthful than government, then America, we do have a serious crisis on our hands.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama, a constitutional lawyer by training, keeps acting out his own inner Rip Van Winkle.

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Given the NSA, Americans would be advised to adopt Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra to their own government.

The Obama Administration seems convinced of the utter pliability and credulity of the American people.

When business executives are more truthful than government, then Americans have a serious crisis on their hands.