The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency now has access to a nationwide license plate recognition database comprising of billions of license plate data records.
ICE obtained access to what the agency described as a ‘commercially available License Plate Reader database’ after finalizing a contract with an unnamed provider in early January, The Verge reported.
Word that ICE has access to this system, which would allow agents to track a target’s whereabouts and potential associates over the last five years via their car movements, has sparked civil liberty concerns.
ICE agents now have access to a nationwide license plate recognition database, sparking concern that they will use it to target illegal immigrants for deportation (pictured: a man is detained by ICE in this 2015 image)
‘Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,’ an ICE spokesperson said in a statement obtained by The Verge.
The spokesperson added that ICE is not looking to create its own license plate reader database and ‘will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract’ – meaning it’s a one-way information street.
ICE confirmed to CNN that West Publishing (TRSS), in partnership with Vigilant Solutions, won the contract.
On Vigilant Solution’s website, the company says that its license plate recognition system involves the use of both fixed and mobile cameras – similar to what local law enforcement use – which take pictures of license plates while noting date, time and GPS coordinates. The license plate images and associated data are then stored in a searchable database.
The database collects license plate photos and data captured by cameras on police dashboards (shown), tollbooths, bridges and elsewhere. ICE agents will be able to search the database as well as receive instant emails when specific license plates are captured
The license plate photos contain date and time stamps, as well as geotagging. Agents can use the photos to track a target’s whereabouts and potential associates over the last five years
In addition, the company says that it ‘Commercial Data’ is collated from license plate captures taken from commercial applications including bridge cameras, tollbooths and car repossessions. Vigilant boasts that it offers up over five billion nationwide detections – instances where license plates were captured – and adds more than 150million new hits a month.
ICE agents would be able to tap into the database in two major ways.
Using a history search, they would be able to find every location where a particular license plate has been seen over the last five years, allowing agents to build a detailed accounting of where a targeted person routinely travels. This data could then be used to identify the person’s home and even frequent associates.
In 2015, a privacy impact assessment report, commissioned by the US Department of Homeland Security, stated that, ‘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.’
The report went on to say that, ‘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.’
The privacy impact assessment was put together following ICE’s cancelled 2014 attempt at gaining access to a license plate renegotiation database.
The second way ICE can use the newly-contracted database is to receive immediate email alerts anytime there’s a new hit on a particular license plate in the system.
Experts worry that ICE’s access to both historical information as well as instantaneous hit alerts will have a significant impact on the agency’s deportation efforts now that it has broadened its efforts beyond criminals to general undocumented immigrants and the like.
Speaking with The Verge, senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, who studies the effect of license plate readers for the ACLU, wondered whether Americans were ‘willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us’ as a byproduct of the desire to deport undocumented people.
In a statement obtained by CNN, an ICE spokesperson pointed out that the agency doesn’t just work on enforcing immigration issues, it also conducts criminal investigations.
Transnational crimes including gang activity, smuggling and the sale or importation of counterfeit goods is also under ICE’s purview.
ICE’s ability to use the license plate recognition system will have some limitations, though.
In addition to not adding any of the plate or data it collects, the email license plate alerts will expire after a one year period and the system will maintain extensive user logs allowing ICE supervisors to track potential misuse of the system.