U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators have recently expanded their use of controversial databases containing billions of license-plate records, and privacy advocates fear the widespread use of these records will embolden the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
While the federal agency previously has used the information in a more limited scope, an agreement signed last month grants ICE unprecedented access to private databases containing data generated by automated license-plate readers (LPRs) that detail the whereabouts of vehicles.
Mounted on police cruisers, tow trucks, tollbooths, and elsewhere, license-plate readers are capable of snapping photos of thousands of license plates every hour. Information from these photos, including plate number, time, and location, is stored in databases run by private companies including West Publishing and Vigilant Solutions, the ones ICE is now accessing.
Investigators can utilize this access in two ways: They can add a specific plate number to a “hot list” and receive real-time notifications when that plate is spotted. Or they can access historical records related to a plate number that, over time, can provide a comprehensive portrait of a driver’s daily patterns and habits. By understanding where cars are typically parked at night, what routes motorists drive to work, or even where drivers attend religious services, ICE officials reason they can better time raids.
“Finding out things about a car over a long period of time lets them predict where a person will be or [at] what time someone is likely to be home,” Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told C/D. His organization studies police surveillance and the use of license-plate readers. “Or if they’re on the run, you can figure out where they’re likely to go, which other family members do they park near, and those sort of inferences.”
An ICE spokesperson said license-plate readers are “one tool” that supports investigations that may be either criminal or civil in nature. The spokesperson stressed that the agency has only contracted for access and is not seeking to build its own database. ICE officials intended do just that in 2014, but they quickly scuttled their plans after an outcry over privacy concerns.
Today, it’s somewhat beside the point who builds and maintains the database. Information for databases like those compiled by Vigilant Solutions is harvested from a constellation of partnerships with local law-enforcement agencies, toll authorities, and private transportation companies. That network is more comprehensive than anything ICE might build and populate on its own.
Further, contracting with a third party like Vigilant may help ICE circumvent some of the “sanctuary city” laws that have arisen in response to the administration’s immigration crackdown. In various permutations, these laws typically prohibit local law-enforcement officials in sanctuary cities from providing ICE with information not otherwise publicly available on suspected undocumented immigrants.
“It’s not like this database is only limited to cars known to belong to undocumented immigrants. It’s everybody.”
– Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Because local and regional law-enforcement organizations are providing license-plate-reader records to Vigilant Solutions, and now that Vigilant and West Publishing are providing the same information to ICE, the records have been passed along through an intermediary rather than via direct access.
“They can essentially do an end-around on the state law,” said Maass, referring to a California law that largely prohibits such information sharing, with some exceptions. “ICE could see where you’ve parked your car 10 nights in a row, and then they have your geolocation. It’s not hard.”
ICE has used license-plate readers prior to the recent contract. Records the Electronic Frontier Foundation has previously obtained via public-records request show that the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has accessed data through Homeland Security Investigations offices in New Orleans, Houston, and Newark, New Jersey. It is unclear what information was accessed or for what purpose. Along borders, DHS has already used thousands of license-plate readers for several years.
But the new contract means the Vigilant and West Publishing databases will be more widely available within ICE. The spokesperson says privacy safeguards are in place, including rules that require ICE investigators to enter a “reason” code for their query and an identification number for the corresponding case record, as well as limitations on the time frame of the data that can be accessed.
Broadly, ICE says license-plate readers are a tool that its Enforcement and Removal Operations unit can use to conduct “targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy, focusing on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security. However, all those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
“All those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
– Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Questions on how ICE might use its newfound access to target immigrants are at the forefront due to the charged political atmosphere, but concerns about the proliferation of license-plate readers aren’t confined to immigration. Most of the billions of records generated by these machines aren’t related to undocumented workers; they’re tied to the license plates of law-abiding citizens.
Other branches of the government have drawn criticism regarding their intended use of LPRs. In 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration and THE Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives partnered on plans to monitor law-abiding attendees of a Phoenix-area gun show, though it’s unclear if the agencies followed through with those plans. In 2005, New York Police Department officials positioned license-plate readers to gather information about congregants at mosques in the city.
Immigrants may be the latest group to be specifically targeted, but the information within these databases is tied to almost any of the nation’s estimated 265 million vehicles.
“This data is being collected on everyone,” said Maass, who recently led a failed effort to get a law passed in California that would have allowed motorists to cover their license plates while legally parked. “It’s not like this database is only limited to cars known to belong to undocumented immigrants. It’s everybody. Everybody is open to abuse by this system and can find themselves wrongly prosecuted by this system. The company selling it to ICE is also selling it to your bank, or insurance company, or debt collector. It’s the same ecosystem of information out there. This is a surveillance system that monitors everyone, and it’s being justified by the administration’s pursuit of immigrants.”