ICE Gains Access to National License Plate Database

The move has fueled concerns by civil liberties groups

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has finalized a contract with a Bay Area-based company that gives the agency access to location-tracking information for license plates across the country.

The data will come from Vigilant Solutions, a Livermore company that has collected 2 billion license plate photos through the years. The contract comes after years of internal ICE lobbying and includes some limits on surveillance like audit logs to trace abuse of the system.

"Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations," spokesperson James Schwab said in a statement to NBC Bay Area. "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."

Many Bay Area residents are angry that a Livermore company is assisting ICE to find undocumented immigrants, and demonstrators held a rally outside the San Francisco Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office.

“If this is true, and they’re gone look at different people’s license plates to see if they’re documented, to see where they work and live, then this is another big brother-esque issue,” said Bay Area resident Kendra Froshman.

Vigilant Solutions said in a statement to NBC Bay Area that they are normally not at liberty to share any contractual details, but they were willing to comment on the general use of ALPR technology (Automated License Plate Recognition), explaining that the license plate tracker can tell the user where a driver is at a specific time but cannot by law give out any personal information.

"The only way to link any anonymous ALPR data record to personally identifiable information, like a name or address, is to obtain access to a state’s Department of Motor Vehicle database,” said a spokesperson from Vigilant Solutions. “This is restricted by a strong federal law, the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), which carries stiff fines and federal prison penalties for any violation.”

The data from Vigilant Solutions has already been used by both local law enforcement agencies and CHP.

The license plate tracking, while legal, is not likely to be imprecise; but it may be meant to specifically target sanctuary communities like Santa Clara County and San Francisco, said legal analyst Steven Clark.

“The other question is, is ICE doing this because states like California and cities like San Francisco refuse to cooperate with ICE, and this is the only avenue that ICE has to conduct its business,” said Clark.

An attorney at American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego said that this is an issue that "effects all residents and all citizens," not just undocumented immigrants.

"There aren’t clear regulations about when they can use the license plate readers, or where, or what happens to the information that’s already collected," staff attorney Zoe McKinney said.

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