Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials recently acquired access to a license plate tracking database that will enable the agency to search and receive real-time updates for any given license plate it chooses to follow.
The source of the data is not named in the contract, but an ICE representative said the data came from Vigilant Solutions, the leading network for license plate recognition data.
This access will allow ICE agents to obtain information in two ways:
- "ICE agents would be able to query that database in two ways. A historical search would turn up every place a given license plate has been spotted in the last five years, a detailed record of the target’s movements. That data could be used to find a given subject’s residence or even identify associates if a given car is regularly spotted in a specific parking lot. "
- "ICE agents can also receive instantaneous email alerts whenever a new record of a particular plate is found — a system known internally as a “hot list.” (The same alerts can also be funneled to the Vigilant’s iOS app.) According to the privacy assessment, as many as 2,500 license plates could be uploaded to the hot list in a single batch, although the assessment does not detail how often new batches can be added. With sightings flooding in from police dashcams and stationary readers on bridges and toll booths, it would be hard for anyone on the list to stay unnoticed for long. "
The move has raised concerns for both immigration and privacy advocates:
For civil liberties groups, the implications go far beyond immigration. “There are people circulating in our society who are undocumented,” says senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, who studies license plate readers with the ACLU. “Are we as a society, out of our desire to find those people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?”
ICE will not contribute to the system's data - simply draw from it. So as the Verge notes, driving by a Vigilant camera might tell ICE your whereabouts, but passing an ICE camera won't alert everyone using the system as to where you are.
Still, the biggest concern for critics is the sheer scale of Vigilant’s network, assembled almost entirely outside of public accountability. “If ICE were to propose a system that would do what Vigilant does, there would be a huge privacy uproar and I don’t think Congress would approve it,” Stanley says. “But because it’s a private contract, they can sidestep that process.”