US Immigration Enforcement using mass surveillance database to track people

By agency reporter
March 17, 2019

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has released records revealing that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has gained access to an expansive surveillance database to target immigrants. The documents also reveal that local law enforcement agencies are aiding ICE in the surveillance efforts by sharing residents’ location information with ICE agents, sometimes in direct violation of local privacy laws or sanctuary policies.

The documents were obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in May 2018.

“It is appalling that ICE has added this mass surveillance database to its arsenal, and that local law enforcement agencies and private companies are aiding the agency in its surveillance efforts”, said Vasudha Talla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Local law enforcement agencies must immediately stop sharing their residents' information with this rogue and immoral agency.”

The records show more than 9,000 ICE agents have access to a vast automated licence plate reader database run by a company called Vigilant Solutions under a $6.1 million contract that the public first learned of last year. The exact scope of ICE’s access to the database, existence and nature of its collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, and broad reach of the surveillance apparatus, however, remained secret until now.

Vigilant Solutions’ database allows the agency to pinpoint the locations of drivers going about their daily private lives, and gives it access to over five billion points of location information collected by private businesses such as insurance companies and parking lots. ICE agents can also access an additional 1.5 billion records collected by law enforcement agencies. Over 80 local law enforcement agencies, from over a dozen states, have agreed to share licence plate location information with ICE. And emails show local police handing driver information over to ICE informally, violating local law and ICE policies.

The ACLU and partner organisations are calling on law enforcement to stop sharing residents’ location data with ICE.

“When local police and sheriffs share their residents’ sensitive information with ICE, they make all community members less safe,” said Daniel Peñaloza, a Central Valley organiser with CHIRLA. “Today we’re urging communities to refuse to give ICE a roadmap that can be used to invade neighborhoods and tear families apart.”

Automated licence plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. When that data – which includes the date, time, and location of each scan – is aggregated over time, it gives law enforcement an intimate portrait of people's lives, including their affiliations, family, interests, activities.

“Drivers, regardless of their immigration status, are getting caught up in this mass surveillance dragnet that gives law enforcement far too much information about people’s lives”, said Talla. “Such supercharged surveillance powers inevitably lead to abuse and discriminatory targeting, particularly of communities of colour, protesters, religious minorities, and immigrants. And given ICE’s egregious record of terrorising immigrant communities, we have even more reason to be alarmed.”

Law enforcement abuse of automated licence plate readers is well-documented. For instance, a police officer in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of cars near a gay bar and blackmailing the cars’ owners. The DEA contemplated using licence plate readers to monitor people who were at a gun show. Since the devices cannot distinguish between those who are selling illegal guns and those who are not, a person’s presence at the gun show would have landed them in a DEA database. 

Vigilant draws its license plate information from the “most populous 50 metropolitan areas” in the country, corresponding to almost 60 per cent of the US population. The company encourages law enforcement to share location information collected locally with hundreds of other agencies nationwide, making it “as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform.”

The records also include training materials that provide ICE with tools to make friends with local police. These include an interactive map of the United States displaying the agencies using Vigilant software and “a step-by-step guide” containing instructions on requesting access from local agencies to their residents’ location information.

* American Civil Liberties Union


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