(CN) – The federal government’s immigration enforcement agency is using mass surveillance techniques to track immigrants and local police agencies are participating, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using an automated license plate reader database to track immigrants as they go about their daily lives, according to documents ACLU Northern California obtained after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 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, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a statement on Wednesday. “Local law enforcement agencies must immediately stop sharing their residents’ information with this rogue and immoral agency.”
The ACLU obtained documents showing ICE spent $6 million on a contract with Vigilant Solutions, otherwise known as West Publishing, which maintains a database of information drawn from automated license plate readers positioned strategically around the United States.
In a Wednesday statement, ICE said it signed the contract with a company to gain access to the license plate reader database, but that the agency does not collect or contribute information.
“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” said Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesman.
Records show that more than 9,000 ICE agents have access to the database, which includes about 5 billion point-of-location information collected by private companies, insurance companies, toll booths, tow trucks and other apparatuses.
The information hosted by Vigilant Solutions is often used not only by ICE but by various law enforcement agencies as an investigative tool.
ACLU has long criticized the collection of license plate reader information as a major infringement of privacy rights of U.S. citizens.
“The information collected by license plate readers provides an intimate portrait of people’s daily lives – where we go, how we live, even down to the churches and doctors we visit,” said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU, in an interview Wednesday. “The government should not have unfettered access to this information.”
As for the large number of ICE personnel having access to the database, ICE says it has developed a policy to ensure its use of the database complies with privacy and civil liberty requirements.
“ICE does not take enforcement action against any individual based solely on the information obtained from the vendor’s license plate readers service,” Bourke said. “ICE personnel check the information against other investigative information, including information from government systems, before taking any action against the individual.”
But ACLU’s criticism isn’t just reserved for ICE; the organization says local law enforcement agencies provide license plate reader information to the agency, sometimes in direct violation of sanctuary policies adopted by the local or state governments. In all, 80 local agencies provided license plate reader information to ICE.
In California alone, Merced and Union City both informally provided ICE with data gathered from the license plate readers – something the ACLU says violates three separate state laws including SB 54, the Golden State’s sanctuary bill.
“This is on top of whatever local ordinances may be being violated,” Cagle said.
California’s laws require law enforcement agencies hold an annual public meeting to tell the public the extent to which local law enforcement has cooperated with ICE. While the meetings have been held, the issue of license plate reading hasn’t been addressed.
“No agency that we know of has done that,” Cagle said.
The third law forbids law enforcement agencies sharing personal information of immigrants with ICE.
Cagle said recent case law, including precedents argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, supports the idea that data collected from license plate readers constitutes personal information and is subject to the state law in question.
“We are calling on local agencies to honor the will of the legislators,” Cagle said. “Follow the law.”