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Obtained Records Show ICE Is Using ALPR Databases To Reconstruct Targets' Lives

DATE POSTED:June 11, 2019

ICE has full-blown access to license plate databases around the nation, as well as its own direct hookup to the largest ALPR database itself -- the one compiled by ALPR manufacturer Vigilant. It places almost no restrictions on searches of these databases. Anything that somehow isn't compliant can be farmed out to state and local agencies to perform searches by proxy.

The ACLU has obtained records showing just how much access ICE has, and how often it performs searches. The numbers are staggering, considering ICE is an immigration and customs enforcement agency with a more limited scope than the FBI and other investigative agencies.

Across seven months in 2018, ICE queried a nationwide license plate location database operated by Vigilant Solutions thousands of times each month, according to search logs obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Northern California. Using the explanations provided by ICE’s lawyers about what query types constituted searches, it appears that ICE performed over 30,000 such queries of this database per month.

Over 9,000 agents have access to the Vigilant database, which currently holds more than a billion records. Rather than run plates and see if they match a hit list, ICE agents use the database to locate people using their vehicles. They also use the database to reconstruct the movements of targets, including determining when they leave and return home and which businesses they frequent. What's included in the records turned over the ACLU is exactly the kind of surveillance privacy advocates have warned these databases enable.

Some of the search logs show ICE agents engaging in the expected ICE business, searching for holders of expired visas or rejected asylum applicants. But a lot of it shows ICE engaging in fishing expeditions, pulling records on US citizens, and tracking people's movements.

"INVESTIGATIONS ATTEMPTING TO LOCATE TRAVEL PATTERNS AND MOST LIKELY LOCATIONS OF INTEREST WHERE TO LOCATE SUBJECT" – February 12, 2018

"ADMINISTRATIVE TO SEE WHEN SUBJECT DEPARTS AND RETURNS TO RESIDENCE" – February 8, 2018

"INVESTIGATIONS RUNNING PLATE TO DETERMINE BUSINESS LOCATIONS WHERE OWNER IS GOING TO" – March 27, 2018

"INVESTIGATIONS PATTERN OF LIFE" – June 18, 2018

ICE could not be more on the nose with these searches, handing civil liberties advocates a whole bunch of ammo to use against the deployment of plate readers. Law enforcement claims ALPR databases are only used to run plates against hot lists, but the reality is these records are amassed by the millions and held for indeterminate periods of time. This combination allows agencies like ICE to reconstruct targets' lives, see where they work, which houses of worship they attend, what activities they engage in, and where they reside. The potential for abuse is no longer a point of discussion. It's happening. And if ICE is doing it, chances are a great number of agencies with Vigilant database access are doing it as well.

The records also show the ICE agents engage in database searches for other agencies, possibly allowing those agencies to avoid internal restrictions on searches.

"ADMINISTRATIVE INTERPOL RED NOTICE INVESTIGATION" – June 15, 2018

"INVESTIGATIONS HELP OTHER LEA [LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY]" – May 30, 2018

"CRIMINAL ASSIST CUMBERLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE" – July 17, 2018

And this delicious bit of inter-agency friction:

"INVESTIGATIONS HELPING THE FBI WITH THINGS THEY SHOULD HAVE DONE ON THEIR OWN" – February 21, 2018

Thanks to Vigilant's tech advances, ICE agents are able to construct surveillance dragnets while on the move. Millions of plate records are only an app away. "Stakeout Browsing Mobile" allows agents to pull every plate record generated in the vicinity of where they're sitting. The obtained records show ICE agents performed this type of search 10,000 times in March 2018 alone.

The records provide incontrovertible proof ALPR databases are being used to engage in long-term surveillance of people's movements, rather than limited to investigations of severe criminal acts or matching scanned plates to hot lists. This should result in a Congressional inquiry, but given ICE's free rein under this administration, this seems unlikely. But this moves the discussion past the point of theoretical and into reality… at the rate of thousands of times per month by a single federal agency.



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