U.S. immigration agency contracts license-plate tracking firm

Every ICE office can search five years of data for a particular plate or put one on a "hot list"

Among its other services, Vigilant Solutions maintains a database of license plate reader (LPR) images gathered from nationwide law enforcement organizations and camera-equipped police cars, plus numerous commercial points like tollbooths and repo services. The company says it "can offer over 5 billion nationwide detections and over 150 million more added monthly" to entities that sign up for the service. According to a report in The Verge, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is the latest to sign a contract with Vigilant, giving every ICE office access to those LPR records.

This isn't the first time ICE has worked, or tried to work, with Vigilant. In 2012, ICE assessed the LPR system's usefulness at tracking undocumented immigrants. An agency official told the Washington Post, "as a tool, it was very useful," so ICE issued an open solicitation in 2014 for agency-wide use of the service. After civil liberties groups raised concerns, the Department of Homeland Security canceled the solicitation, but two ICE offices signed one-year contracts on their own. ICE tried again with an open solicitation in 2015, but didn't sign a contract with a vendor.

The third time was the charm. With agency-wide access, every ICE office can search a particular plate and pull up five years of LPR data (date, time, GPS coordinate) for that plate. Or agents could add plates to a hot list, and be notified when the plate's been spotted by a reader. Vigilant gives database members the option to contribute their proprietary LPR information with the entire database. Note, LPR data is anonymous, and can't be tied to an individual without access to a state's department of motor vehicles. Access to those databases is protected by the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

An ICE spokeswoman, in commenting to The Verge, said, "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." Still, civil liberties groups aren't happy. A senior policy analyst at the ACLU asked, "Are we as a society, out of our desire to find [undocumented immigrants], willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?"

Even ICE personnel have asked questions. A privacy officer at the agency wrote in 2011, "From what I can tell, this data is collected privately and used by law enforcement without the public's knowledge. There is no accountability to the public as to how the data is collected, how much is collected, how long it is retained, how it is used or what rights affected users might have." The Verge report said Vigilant keeps detailed audit logs to prohibit abuse, but now that the ink on the contract is dry, we'll simply have to see how this plays out.

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