Newly released documents reveal Immigration and Customs Enforcement is tracking and targeting immigrants through a massive license plate reader database supplied with data from local police departments — in some cases violating sanctuary laws.
The documents, obtained by a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and released Tuesday, reveal the vehicle surveillance system collects more than a hundred million license plates a month from some of the largest cities in the U.S., including New York and Los Angeles, both of which are covered under laws limiting police cooperation with immigration agencies.
More than 9,000 ICE agents have access to the database, run by Vigilant Solutions, feeding some six billion vehicle detection records into Thomson Reuters’ investigative platform LEARN, to which police departments can buy access.
“The public has a right to know when a government agency — especially an immoral and rogue agency such as ICE — is exploiting a mass surveillance database that is a threat to the privacy and safety of drivers across the United States,” said Vasudha Talla, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in an email to TechCrunch.
Talla, who sued ICE to release the documents, said the government “should not have unfettered access to information that reveals where we live, where we work, and our private habits.” Critics have noted several high-profile cases of police misusing and improperly accessing license plate data.
Automatic license plate readers (ALPR) scan and detect license plates, along with the time, date and location from thousands of cameras installed across the country to spot criminals and fugitives with warrants out for their arrest. The ACLU previously called it one of the new and emerging forms of mass surveillance in the United States. Companies like Vigilant feed data collected from ALPR cameras into databases accessible to law enforcement and federal agencies, which the ACLU accused ICE of using to find and deport immigrants.
ICE has a “hot list” of more than 1,100 license plates of suspects, felons or other subjects of interest, according to the documents released. Plates on the hot list trigger an alert to ICE that the vehicle has been spotted, including where and when.
“Hot lists are just one method by which ICE agents can track drivers with this system,” said Talla.
ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke said the agency does not break down how many hot list detections led to deportations or removals from the U.S.
Thomson Reuters spokesperson Jeff McCoy declined to comment. Vigilant Solutions did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s the third effort by ICE to secure access to the database in the past five years, after earlier attempts in 2014 over privacy concerns and 2015 over price negotiations failed. The agency rushed to secure the contract before a planned hike in cost by Thomson Reuters toward the end of 2017.
ICE spent $6.1 million on its latest contract in February 2018, gaining access to 80 law enforcement agencies covering almost two-thirds of the U.S. population. To allay fears of potential misuse, the agency was required to pass a revised privacy impact assessment explaining how ICE can and cannot use the license plate data. In one released email to an NPR reporter, ICE said agents “can only access data” uploaded by police departments if they elect to share it through the system.
But the ACLU found emails of ICE agents directly contacting local law enforcement officers to ask for license plate search data, circumventing the database.