The news that Immigrations & Customs Enforcement is using a massive database of license plate scans from a private company sent shockwaves through the civil liberties and immigrants’ rights community, who are already sounding the alarm about how mass surveillance will be used to fuel deportation efforts.
The concerns are certainly justified: the vendor, Vigilant Solutions, offers access to 6.5 billion data points, plus millions more collected by law enforcement agencies around the country. Using advanced algorithms, this information—often collected by roving vehicles equipped with automated license plate readers (ALPRs) that scan every license plate they pass—can be used to reveal a driver’s travel patterns and to track a vehicle in real time.
ICE announced the expansion of its ALPR program in December, but without disclosing what company would be supplying the data. While EFF had long suspected Vigilant Solutions won the contract, The Verge confirmed it in a widely circulated story published last week.
In California, this development raises many questions about whether the legislature has taken enough steps to protect immigrants, despite passing laws last year to protect residents from heavy-handed immigration enforcement.
But California lawmakers should have already seen this coming. Two years ago, The Atlantic branded these commercial ALPR databases, “an unprecedented threat to privacy.”
Vigilant Solutions tells its law enforcement customers that accessing this data is “as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform.” As a result, California agencies share their data wholesale with hundreds of entities, ranging from small towns in the Deep South to a variety of federal agencies.
An analysis by EFF of records obtained from local police has identified more than a dozen California agencies that have already been sharing ALPR data with ICE through their Vigilant Solutions accounts. The records show that ICE, through its Homeland Security Investigations offices in Newark, New Orleans, and Houston, and its Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, has had access to data from more than a dozen California police departments for years.
At least one ICE office has access to ALPR data collected by the following police agencies:
- Anaheim Police Department
- Antioch Police Department
- Bakersfield Police Department
- Chino Police Department
- Fontana Police Department
- Fountain Valley Police Department
- Glendora Police Department
- Hawthorne Police Department
- Montebello Police Department
- Orange Police Department
- Sacramento Police Department
- San Diego Police Department
- Simi Valley Police Department
- Tulare Police Department
ICE agents have also obtained direct access to this data through user accounts provided by local law enforcement. For example, an ICE officer obtained access through the Long Beach Police Department’s system in November 2016 and ran 278 license plate searches over nine months. Two CBP officers further conducted 578 plate searches through Long Beach’s system during that same period.
It’s important to note that ALPR technology collects and stores data on millions of drivers without any connection to a criminal investigation. As EFF noted, this data can reveal sensitive information about a person, for example, if they visit reproductive health clinics, immigration resource centers, mosques, or LGBTQ clubs. Even attendees at gun shows have found their plates captured by CBP officers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Police departments must take a hard look at their ALPR systems and un-friend DHS. But the California legislature also has a chance to offer a defense measure for drivers who want to protect their privacy.
Update: The California Senate voted down S.B. 712 on January 30, 2018.
S.B. 712 would allow drivers to apply a removable cover to their license plates when they are lawfully parked, similar to how drivers are currently allowed to cover their entire vehicles with a tarp to protect their paint jobs from elements. While this would not prevent ALPRs from collecting data from moving vehicles, it would offer privacy for those who want to protect the confidentiality of their destinations.
Before the latest story broke, S.B. 712 was brought to the California Senate floor, where it initially failed on a tied vote, with many Republicans and Democrats—including Sens. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)—joining in support.
Unfortunately, several Democrats, such as Senate President Kevin de León and Sen. Connie Leyva, who have positioned themselves as immigrant advocates, voted against the bill the first time around. Others, such as Sens. Toni Atkins and Ricardo Lara, sat the vote out.
The Senate has one last chance to pass the bill and send it to the California Assembly by January 31. The bill is urgently necessary to protect the California driving public from surveillance.
Californians: join us today in urging your senator to stand up for privacy, not the interests of ICE or the myriad of financial institutions, insurance companies, and debt collectors who also abuse this mass data collection.
Note: This post has been updated to include the Bulk Cash Smuggling Center in the list of ways ICE accesses data.