Thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans now have one more example of the U.S. federal government working with the local authorities to enact a national surveillance grid.
In May 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the agency refused to comply with requests for records related to a massive automatic license plate reader database operated by a company called Vigilant Solutions. The records reveal that local law enforcement agencies are helping ICE by sharing residents’ location information with the federal agency. Often, these officers are doing so in violation of their own local laws.
The ACLU documents show more than 9,000 ICE agents have access to the license plate reader database as a result of a $6.1 million contract with Vigilant Solutions. The Verge first reported on the contract in 2018, however, the exact details of the partnership and the involvement of local law enforcement remained a secret until the release of these documents. The contract makes ICE one of several federal agencies who have access to billions of license plate records which can used for real-time location tracking.
“It is appalling that ICE has added this mass surveillance database to its arsenal, and that local law enforcement agencies and private companies are aiding the agency in its surveillance efforts,” said Vasudha Talla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Local law enforcement agencies must immediately stop sharing their residents’ information with this rogue and immoral agency.”
When the contract was first revealed, spokesperson Dani Bennett told The Verge:
“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations. 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.”
Despite those statements from January 2018, the new documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California make it clear that ICE is indeed helping build a tracking database by partnering with local law enforcement. In this case, the database is being used by ICE to target illegal immigrants. However, it is not difficult to see how this database and other surveillance tools in the hands of law enforcement can (and will) be used to target Americans as well.
“Drivers, regardless of their immigration status, are getting caught up in this mass surveillance dragnet that gives law enforcement far too much information about people’s lives,” said Talla. “Such supercharged surveillance powers inevitably lead to abuse and discriminatory targeting, particularly of communities of color, protesters, religious minorities, and immigrants. And given ICE’s egregious record of terrorizing immigrant communities, we have even more reason to be alarmed.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without Vigilant Solutions.
Vigilant Solutions has more than 2 billion license plate photos in their database due to partnerships with vehicle repossession firms and local law enforcement agencies with vehicles equipped with cameras. Local law enforcement agencies typically use some version of an Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR). ALPRs are used to gather license plate, time, date and location that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, toll booths and digital speed signs, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles
Vigilant Solutions’ contract with ICE allows the federal agency to perform two types of searches of the massive database–historical searches and hot lists. A historical search looks up every location visited by a license plate in the last five years. In addition, ICE agents can receive email updates when a plate is located using what are known as hot lists. Departments and officers can create lists of “vehicles of interest” and alert other ALPR users when the vehicle is spotted. Officers can search individual plates numbers in the ALPR system to track during their shift. There seems to be no requirement of reasonable suspicion or a warrant needed to be added to such a list. There is a precedent for abuse of these hot lists.
In 2009, the BBC reported on the case of John Catt. Catt is a regular attendee of anti-war protests in his home town of Brighton. His vehicle was tagged by police at one of the events and he was added to a “hotlist.” He said later, while on a trip to London, he was pulled over by anti-terror police. He was threatened with arrest if he did not cooperate and answer the questions of the police. In addition, a 2013 investigation by MuckRock and the Boston Globe revealed that the Boston Police Department violated its own policies by failing to follow up on leads that were flagged by the ALPR scans. Public records requests by MuckRock found that the BPD also collected information on its own officers.
The agreement between ICE and Vigilant Solutions is simply one more step in the direction of complete and total tracking of the location and history of every vehicle on the road.