ICE Finally Gets The Nationwide License Plate Database It’s Spent Years Asking For

ICE is finally getting that nationwide license plate reader database it’s been lusting after for several years. The DHS announced plans for a nationwide database in 2014, but decided to rein that idea in after a bit of backlash. The post-Snowden political climate made many domestic mass surveillance plans untenable, if not completely unpalatable.

Times have changed. The new team in the White House doesn’t care how much domestic surveillance it engages in as long as it might aid in rooting out foreign immigrants. The first move was the DHS’s updated Privacy Impact Assessment on license plate readers — delivered late last year — which came to the conclusion that any privacy violations were minimal compared to the national security net benefits.

The last step has been finalized, as Russell Brandom reports for The Verge.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has officially gained agency-wide access to a nationwide license plate recognition database, according to a contract finalized earlier this month. The system gives the agency access to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking, raising significant concerns from civil libertarians.

For those counting tax beans, the good news is this database won’t cost much. Billions of license plate records have already been collected (and continue to be collected). All the winning contractor has to do is hook ICE up to the firehose.

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. “Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” spokesperson Dani Bennett said in a statement. “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.”

Nice use of wiggle words to minimize ICE’s new surveillance power. ICE won’t “build” a database. Great, but it doesn’t need to. Vigilant has been collecting records for years via private companies and partnerships with law enforcement agencies. Around two billion plate/location records are already stored by Vigilant, presumably indefinitely. According to the Verge report, ICE will have access to at least five years of records for historical searches.

But ICE won’t be just be diving into Vigilant’s plate record archives. ICE will also be able to hand Vigilant “hot lists” for automatic notification any time the nation’s many ALPR cameras capture a shot of targeted license plates.

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.

According to the report, ICE first tried out Vigilant’s system in 2012. It hoped to go live in 2014, but the Snowden documents chilled enthusiasm for mass surveillance temporarily. Now, the system is ready to roll, pre-stocked with a couple billion plate records for ICE to peruse as it expands its enforcement activities past the deportation of foreign criminals.

There are few nods to privacy, but they’re mostly useless. ICE owns it own ALPR cameras but those won’t feed into this database, which means other law enforcement agencies won’t have access to ICE-generated plate records. Hot lists aren’t forever. They’ll expire after a year. And there will be audit trails for ICE agents who use the system, although it remains to be seen how serious ICE is about punishing misuse of this authority.

There’s not much that citizens can do to keep their inland plates from becoming part of ICE’s border enforcement activity. Most states require visible, legible license plates at all times, even when parked at homes or private businesses. One state, however, is doing something about that. California legislators recently offered up a bill that would provide a little pocket of privacy for citizens and their vehicles.

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.

Unfortunately, this legislation has struggled to find enough support to get it to the governor’s desk. As the EFF reports, state senators who have stated support for pushing back against the White House’s anti-immigrant policies failed to show support for a bill that would have slowed ICE’s acquisition of plate records from their state. The initial vote, however, took place before the Verge broke the story of ICE’s partnership with Vigilant Systems. Things could change on January 31’s vote, now that new information has come to light.

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