The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has officially gained agency-wide access to a nationwide license plate recognition database, according to a contract finalized earlier this month. The system gives the agency access to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking, raising significant concerns from civil libertarians.
The source of the data is not named in the contract, but an ICE representative said the data came from Vigilant Solutions, the leading network for license plate recognition data. "Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations," spokesperson Dani Bennett said in a statement. "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." (Vigilant did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
While it collects few photos itself, Vigilant Solutions has amassed a database of more than 2 billion license plate photos by ingesting data from partners like vehicle repossession agencies and other private groups. Vigilant also partners with local law enforcement agencies, often collecting even more data from camera-equipped police cars. The result is 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.
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ICE agents would be able to query that database in two ways. A historical search would turn up every place a given license plate has been spotted in the last five years, a detailed record of the target's movements. That data could be used to find a given subject's residence or even identify associates if a given car is regularly spotted in a specific parking lot.
"Knowing the previous locations of a vehicle can help determine the whereabouts of subjects of criminal investigations or priority aliens to facilitate their interdiction and removal," an official privacy assessment explains. "In some cases, when other leads have gone cold, the availability of commercial LPR data may be the only viable way to find a subject."
ICE agents can also receive instantaneous email alerts whenever a new record of a particular plate is found — a system known internally as a "hot list." (The same alerts can also be funneled to the Vigilant's iOS app.) According to the privacy assessment, as many as 2,500 license plates could be uploaded to the hot list in a single batch, although the assessment does not detail how often new batches can be added. With sightings flooding in from police dashcams and stationary readers on bridges and toll booths, it would be hard for anyone on the list to stay unnoticed for long.
Those powers are particularly troubling given ICE's recent move to expand deportations beyond criminal offenders, fueling concerns of politically motivated enforcement. In California, state officials have braced for rumored deportation sweeps targeted at sanctuary cities. In New York, community leaders say they've been specifically targeted for deportation as a result of their activism. With automated license plate recognition, that targeting would only grow more powerful.
For civil liberties groups, the implications go far beyond immigration. "There are people circulating in our society who are undocumented," says senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, who studies license plate readers with the ACLU. "Are we as a society, out of our desire to find those people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?"
The new license plate reader contract comes after years of internal lobbying by the agency. ICE first tested Vigilant's system in 2012, gauging how effective it was at locating undocumented immigrants. Two years later, the agency issued an open solicitation for the technology, sparking an outcry from civil liberties group. Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson canceled the solicitation shortly afterward, citing privacy concerns, although two field offices subsequently formed rogue contracts with Vigilant in apparent violation of Johnson's policy. In 2015, Homeland Security issued another call for bids, although an ICE representative said no contract resulted from that solicitation.
As a result, this new contract is the first agency-wide contract ICE has completed with the company, a fact that is reflected in accompanying documents. On December 27th, 2017, Homeland Security issued an updated privacy assessment of license plate reader technology, a move it explained was necessary because "ICE has now entered into a contract with a vendor."
The new system places some limits on ICE surveillance, but not enough to quiet privacy concerns. Unlike many agencies, ICE won't upload new data to Vigilant's system but simply scan through the data that's already there. In practical terms, that means driving past a Vigilant-linked camera might flag a car to ICE, but driving past an ICE camera won't flag a car to everyone else using the system. License plates on the hot list will also expire after one year, and the system retains extensive audit logs to help supervisors trace back any abuse of the system.
Still, the biggest concern for critics is the sheer scale of Vigilant's network, assembled almost entirely outside of public accountability. "If ICE were to propose a system that would do what Vigilant does, there would be a huge privacy uproar and I don't think Congress would approve it," Stanley says. "But because it's a private contract, they can sidestep that process."