The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has secured access to “a commercially available license plate reader database,” according to an ICE Official.
“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” ICE spokeswoman Dani Bennett told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “ICE conducts both criminal investigations and civil immigration enforcement investigations.”
Bennett added that they are not trying to develop a license plate reader database and promises that it will not collect any data and subsequently contribute to any other databases through the awarded contract, which was first reported by The Verge. The contract was publicized Jan. 8 through the General Services Administration’s (GSA) federal license website. The details, though, were sparse.
The contract, according to an ICE official, is with “West Publishing (TRSS)” which is partnering with Vigilant Solutions to provide the service.
The official says that any agent trying to use the service will be forced to agree to a set of rules beforehand, like inputting “a reason code” and pledging to not share the data with other internal system users or external parties.
Civil liberties advocacy groups have long complained of such technology, specifically that it’s being abused to spy on law-abiding, innocent citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, alleges:
The information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.
The Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over ICE, originally nixed a plan to acquire a tracking system for license plates in February 2014. Due to certain privacy concerns, officials then mandated that all future, similar plans be thoroughly probed before implementation.
However, ICE circumvented the new protocol and signed a one-year contract with a company offering a commercially-available license plate database, according to The Washington Post. ICE officials at the time also assured that it was not going to use it in any excessive ways, and that it was limited to criminal investigations already far into the law enforcement process. That contract was also with Vigilant Solutions, which told WaPo that roughly 3,200 law enforcement agencies across the country (local, state, and federal) use their National Vehicle Locator Service.
“As a tool, it was very useful,” an anonymous agency official told WaPo in 2014. “We were after illegal aliens who were wanted on aggravated felonies or who had warrants as drug dealers. It helped narrow down to an apartment complex or city block. You locate the vehicle, then you can start watching the vehicle to find the person. It was very successful.”
The DHS then reportedly scaled back the tracking system again. An ICE official says that was in fact ultimately cancelled, “due to failed price negotiations.”
Past instances seemed to have fueled their purpotedly genuine desire to ensure that nothing improper occurs.
“Due to privacy concerns during a previous solicitation, in 2015, ICE completed a privacy impact assessment which was used to create a framework for use of the technology,” said Bennett. “The privacy impact assessment was updated prior to ICE’s use of any license plate reader database, to reflect how the contract meets the established privacy requirements. These are the most stringent requirements known to have been applied for the use of this technology.”
The ACLU, in its report titled “You Are Being Tracked,” says such capabilities “would pose few civil liberties risks if they only checked plates against hot lists,” but that often the data is stored and used for other purposes, going beyond the bounds of the target — even if law enforcement says it’s not supposed to be that way.
“More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives,” the report states. “The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”
It’s not just ICE and the larger DHS employing the service. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has also been accused of using and abusing license plate-tracking technology.
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