Records have been obtained by the ACLU of Northern California, as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that show local city governments are using their technology to provide information to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). More specifically, by-law enforcement officers are sending automated license plate reader (ALPR) data to help ICE track people down. The ACLU-NC wrote the records show that more than 9,000 ICE officers have been granted access to an ALPR database run by a private company, Vigilant Systems. More than 80 law enforcement organizations in more than a dozen states have also begun sharing license plate data with ICE.
According to the Washington Post, the data is obtained from traffic control systems, toll roads, parking lots, police squad car scanners and other sources, which is then matched to license plate data indicating who the vehicle is registered to. The post believes that there are “few legal limitations” in relation to this practice and wrote:
The database contains billions of records on vehicle locations captured from red-light and speed-limit cameras as well as from parking lots and toll roads that use the nearly ubiquitous and inexpensive scanners to monitor vehicle comings and goings.
Local police forces have long used those scanners to track criminal suspects and enforce traffic laws across the United States… The revelation drew sharp criticism from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who said the mere notion of “a massive, for-profit location-tracking database is about the worst idea I have ever heard of when it comes to Americans’ privacy and security.”
The ACLU-NC has indicated that the documents show the Vigilant Systems database contains over five billion unique license plate scans from private businesses, and its “commercial database” is thought to be adding “an average of 150-200 million unique records each month”. Law enforcement cooperation has added another 1.5 billion records to this growing list. But is this at all illegal? Not necessarily. The sharing of ALPR data may violate “sanctuary city” laws, which would only prevent local law enforcement from assisting federal immigration authorities, but that’s about it.
The ALPR data is suspected of being used to assist ICE in deportations. Last year alone, ICE deported 256,000 people. An ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said that the database is not used to track individuals “who have no connect to ICE investigatory or enforcement activities”. Which makes sense, but is my license plate data in some data base now, all because ICE is attempting to track someone else?
The other interesting piece to note is that the use of this particular database doesn’t require authorization from a judge. In other cases, police are required to get that authorization if they want to attach a GPS tracker to a car, for example. But these scanners are logging license plate data on every passing car – and not just those owned by suspects. The ACLU states:
“Local governments need to take immediate action to limit the exposure of local residents’ information to ICE and withhold information from fusion centers that do not do the same. ICE has long embraced technology to target immigrants. Now it’s taking surveillance to an unprecedented level to target vulnerable communities — and sweeping up everyone else in the process.”