Documents Reveal ICE Using Driver Location Data From Local Police for Deportations

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using mass location surveillance to target immigrants. And local governments like Merced and Union City, California, are helping — feeding their residents’ personal information to ICE, even when it violates local privacy laws or sanctuary policies. Today, the ACLU is urging an immediate end to this information sharing.

Records obtained by the ACLU of Northern California in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit detail ICE’s sweeping use of a vast automated license plate reader (ALPR) database run by a company called Vigilant Solutions. Over 9,000 ICE officers have gained access to the Vigilant system under a $6.1 million contract that the public first learned of last year. ICE has access to over 5 billion data points of location information collected by private businesses, like insurance companies and parking lots, and can gain access to 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 license plate location information with ICE. Emails show local police handing driver information over to ICE informally, violating local law and ICE policies.

The ACLU’s grave concerns about the civil liberties risks of license plate readers take on greater urgency as this surveillance information fuels ICE’s deportation machine. Many communities have license plate readers: high-speed cameras mounted on police cars, road signs, or bridges that can photograph every passing license plate. Together with time, date, and location coordinates, the information is stored for years, generating a literal and intimate roadmap of people’s private lives. Vigilant also sells ALPR systems to local police and hosts location information collected by law enforcement and private companies in a massive database called LEARN.

We already knew that ICE engages in egregious conduct: from arresting a father dropping off his daughter at school to detaining a woman in court seeking a protective order against an abuser. But adding license plate surveillance with its attendant misuse — police spying on Muslim Americans or unlawfully detaining a black woman at gunpoint — magnifies ICE’s threats to community safety. And now we know which local police departments are helping ICE terrorize immigrant communities by sharing license plate information.

A Nationwide Mass-Surveillance Dragnet

Contract documents show that ICE has long desired the ability to locate people with laser-like precision. After prior attempts were scuttled because of privacy concerns, ICE rushed to finalize a 2017 contract with Thomson Reuters for access to the Vigilant database.

The $6.1 million contract gives ICE access to the Vigilant database through September 2020. Not only does Vigilant’s existing database contain over 5 billion license plate scans nationwide, but the database would continue adding, from commercial sources, “an average of 150-200 million unique” license plate scans each month.

Vigilant draws its license plate information from the “most populous 50 metropolitan areas” in the country, corresponding to almost 60 percent of the U.S. population.

Vigalent's LPR Coverage Map

Document - Top Metro Area Screenshot

ICE was also told that law enforcement agencies “could provide hundreds of millions more LPR scans available for ICE to search” and that its database held “500 million” license plate locations collected by law enforcement.

License plate information collected and shared by police and sheriffs are key to the surveillance dragnet. Vigilant 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.”

In training materials, ICE was given the tools to make friends with local police: an interactive map of the United States displaying the agencies using Vigilant software, together with “a step-by-step guide (with pictures!)” containing instructions on requesting access from local agencies to their residents’ location information.

ICE Local Police

ICE’s efforts to exploit locally collected location information are working. An internal report lists the 80 local agencies nationwide that granted ICE ongoing access to license plate locations of their residents, including “sanctuary cities” like Union City, California. We do not know whether police gave notice to their residents before agreeing to share years of intimate details with ICE.

In addition to ongoing access to local information, ICE makes individual requests to friendly police for surveillance. Released emails reveal a years-long relationship between an ICE officer and a detective in a fusion center — an intelligence-sharing agency long-criticized by the ACLU for violating civil liberties — in Orange County, California.

The detective searched the Vigilant database at the request of ICE and shared the results:

Document - Email Exchange

Document - Email Exchange

These emails and others reveal ICE’s methods for circumventing both internal privacy rules and attempts by local law enforcement agencies to lock down their information. These informal inquiries violate ICE’s privacy rules requiring all use of ALPR technology to be documented and justified. And ICE exploits friendly intermediaries like the Orange County detective to obtain information collected by another law enforcement agency that may not want ICE to have access to its information. This contradicts ICE’s claim that “there are no circumstances where ICE can gain access through the vendor system if a law enforcement agency has chosen not to share its data.”

With more than 9,200 ICE employees with accounts on the Vigilant database — many of whom have deportation as their primary work — privacy safeguards are essential. Yet ICE’s so-called Privacy Guidance contains gaping holes that enable ICE to infringe on civil liberties. ICE can sweep up to “five years” of driver information when searching for an immigrant to deport.

Storing that much location information is both a significant invasion of privacy and entirely unnecessary to find someone’s current location. The privacy rules also do not prevent ICE from ensnaring other individuals — whom they are not looking for — increasing the chances of baseless stops and false arrests.

ICE’s privacy rules fail to adequately protect First Amendment-protected speech and activity. While the guidance requires ICE abide by its Sensitive Location policy — limiting surveillance near schools, hospitals, churches, protests, or weddings — there is no way for ICE to know before searching the Vigilant database whether the search will turn up driver information near those locations.

Resistance Is Local

In California, police sharing resident location information with ICE violates the law.

Senate Bill 34 and the California Values Act (SB 54) — passed to protect privacy and immigrant safety — prohibit local law enforcement agencies from sharing license plate information and personal information for immigration enforcement or with out-of-state or federal agencies. Many localities have gone beyond that to adopt ordinances to provide sanctuary to immigrants.

On Wednesday, the ACLU called on local law enforcement agencies to stop sharing their residents’ location information with ICE.

California state lawmakers should now call for the state auditor to review compliance with SB 34 and SB 54.

In addition, communities must regain control over their personal information. Some have already rejected contracts for license plate surveillance — like Alameda and Culver City in California. And all communities should pass ordinances to require transparency, oversight, and approval whenever a police department considers purchasing surveillance technology.

If these ordinances existed, and the right questions were being asked and answered from the start, places like Union City wouldn’t be endangering their communities by sharing location information with ICE, which is in direct conflict with their sanctuary policies and the law. Local governments need to take immediate action to limit the exposure of local residents’ information to ICE and withhold information from fusion centers that do not do the same.

ICE has long embraced technology to target immigrants. Now it’s taking surveillance to an unprecedented level to target vulnerable communities — and sweeping up everyone else in the process. It’s time to take back control of our information and make sure our communities aren’t collaborating with ICE.

Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MuckRock for their work documenting the widespread sharing of license plate information among law enforcement agencies nationwide.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

"BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU": George Orwell in 1984.

Anonymous

The entire legal theory and premise of “Law & Order” is completely meaningless if there isn’t a healthy risk of penalty for law breakers. In clear-cut cases, where officials know they are violating U.S. Supreme Court rulings, there needs to harsher penalties to create a “deterrent effect” for law breaking officials.

Anonymous

The illegal aliens are breaking the laws which they should be held accountable for. If it wasn’t for illegal aliens living here in America we would not need ICE When you break the law you are responsible for your actions so should the illegal aliens be responsible for their actions. They need to be deported back to their countries.

Anonymous

How do you maintain this theory, when the premise of justice is truth, and the country's executive is immoral and manipulates the truth? If the president attains high office by breaking the laws of the land, all that proceeds from this leadership will be corrupt and perverse. There becomes no deterrent effect to subordinate wrongdoing, and justice is undermined. The law breaker who sits in high office by repeatedly breaking the law -- is antithetical to Justice. This describes meaningless not the SCOTUS.

Anonymous

The president was voted in by the American citizens not all vote for him I didn’t vote for him. So you can thank the ILLEGAL ALIENS,DREAMERS,TSP and OVERSTAYED VISA FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP BEING IN THE WHITE HOUSE. DEPORTED all of them back to their own countries. BUILD THAT WALL.

Johnny Swaggin ...

If all illegal immigrants were suddenly deported, the economic impact would be disastrous. The impact to domestic agriculture alone would be devastating. Our economy relies on exploiting undocumented immigrants.

Anonymous

I'm glad ICE is doing their job and enforcing our laws ! Illegals should be deported !

Anonymous

Yes I am happy that ICE is doing it’s job. Ice and the border patrol have the hardest job catching illegal aliens in America with DEMOCRATIC PARTY,LIBERALS,OPEN BORDER not helping them. America congress and the senate need to make a strict immigration laws. E-VERFIY SHOULD BE MANDATORY IN EVERY STATE AND PLACE CRIMINAL CHARGES AGAINST COMPANIES THAT EMPLOYS ILLEGAL ALIENS. DEPORTED ALL ILLEGAL ALIENS AND THEIR FAMILIES. Start charging all illegal aliens room and board and ICE and the BORDER PATROL WAGES.

Johnny Swaggin ...

It seems that you don't realize how much our economy relies on exploiting undocumented immigrants. The impact to agriculture alone would be devastating if we suddenly deported every undocumented immigrant inside US borders. What you're proposing would have disastrous consequences.

Anonymous

They can have national who can be here until they harvest the crops and then go home. Why don’t the LEFTIST, OPEN BORDER and LIBERALS go and help with the crops instead of crying. Put American prisoners out in fields and pay them good wages.

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