In another example of the growing use of surveillance technology by the United States government, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency now has access to a nationwide license plate recognition database.
Last week The Verge reported that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency now has access to a nationwide license plate recognition database after finalizing a contract with the industry’s top license plate data collection company. A copy of the contract shows that ICE finalized the deal in early January. The contract will make ICE the latest of several federal agencies who have access to billions of license plate records which can used for real-time location tracking. The Verge reports:
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.
Vigilant Solutions released a statement denying any contract with ICE, noting that they do not share contractual details per “a standard agreement between our company, our partners, and our clients.” The company has more than 2 billion license plate photos in their database due to partnerships with vehicle repossession firms and local law enforcement agencies with vehicles equipped with cameras. Local law enforcement agencies typically use some version of an Automatic License Plate Reader. ALPRs are used to gather license plate, time, date and location that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. “The result is a massive vehicle-tracking network generating as many as 100 million sightings per month, each tagged with a date, time, and GPS coordinates of the sighting,” reports The Verge.
The new contract will allow ICE to perform two types of searches of the massive database – historical searches and hot lists. A historical search looks up every location visited by a license plate in the last five years. In addition, ICE agents can now receive email updates when a plate is located using what are known as hot lists. Departments and officers can create lists of “vehicles of interest” and alert other ALPR users when the vehicle is spotted. Officers can search individuals plates numbers in the ALPR system to track during their shift. There seems to be no requirement of reasonable suspicion or a warrant needed to be added to such a list. There is a precedent for abuse of these hot lists.
In 2009 the BBC reported on the case of John Catt. Catt is a regular attendee of anti-war protests in his home town, Brighton. His vehicle was tagged by police at one of the events and he was added to a “hotlist.” He said later while on a trip to London he was pulled over by anti-terror police. He was threatened with arrest if he did not cooperate and answer the questions of the police. In addition, a 2013 investigation by MuckRock and the Boston Globe revealed that the Boston Police Department violated its own policies by failing to follow up on leads that were flagged by the ALPR scans. Public records requests by MuckRock found that the BPD also collected information on its own officers.
These actions have prompted concern from civil liberties advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told The Verge that Americans need to decide if their desire to catch undocumented people will allow “our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us”.
The ACLU was one of the first organizations to report on the existence of a national license plate collection and analysis program. In January 2015, the ACLU revealed the Drug Enforcement Administration was operating such a program. According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, as of 2015 the DEA had gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program.
One document shows the DEA has at least 100 license plate readers in eight states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. Law enforcement in Southern California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties and New Jersey are among the agencies providing the DEA with data. The program opened to local and state partners in 2009.
In July 2015, the ACLU received more documents which revealed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to local and state law enforcement agencies for the purchase of automatic license plate reader systems. The ACLU reported:
The NHTSA is funding license plate readers for highway safety purposes only, but it’s far from clear how law enforcement agencies are interpreting this and whether they are using the funding to buy license plate readers for non-safety uses. The NHTSA should not be funding police technology for surveillance purposes and it should not let law enforcement apply for funding to decrease traffic fatalities and then turn around and use those funds to track people not suspected of any crime.
The documents show that various state agencies received NHTSA funds for the purchase of ALPRs in order to document highway safety. While much of the grants are intended to be used to study highway safety, traffic congestion or similar benign activities, the cameras have been shown to record other perfectly legal behavior. The ACLU has previously released documents that show the DEA was using ALPRs to photograph vehicle occupants.
The agreement between ICE and Vigilant Solutions is simply one more step in the direction of complete and total tracking of the location and history of every vehicle on the road. If there is any way to stop the Surveillance State it is by refusing to fund the government at every turn and supporting those who are creating technologies which can counter the surveillance of Big Brother.
For more information check out the ACLU’s report “You Are Being Tracked: License Plate Readers Explained”
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist and liberty activist. He is the Lead Investigative Reporter for ActivistPost.com and the founder of the TheConsciousResistance.com. Follow him on Twitter. Derrick is the author of three books: The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy and Spirituality and Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion, Vol. 1, Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion, Vol. 2 and Manifesto of the Free Humans.
Derrick is available for interviews. Please contact Derrick@activistpost.com
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