Immigration officials have had direct access to hundreds of millions of license plate scans from across the country, including from law enforcement agencies, to help them investigate and track people wanted for deportation, according to new documents made public by the ACLU.
The documents reveal what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials received when they entered into a contract with Thomson Reuters at the end of 2017 for access to Vigilant Solutions’ license plate reader database. The agreement gave more than 9,000 ICE personnel access to privately collected license plate scans from the 50 most populous metro areas in the US, as well as millions more scans from local law enforcement.
The information for the license plate data comes from commercial sources such as cameras from parking garages or repossession companies. The other source is law enforcement cameras that scan license plates.
The revelations come at a time when ICE has expanded its priorities of who it targets for arrests to include nearly every undocumented immigrant, sending the number of immigrants it holds in detention to record levels. The Trump administration has made immigration enforcement a key pillar of its priorities and increased access to tools, like license plate reader databases, has likely helped ICE follow through on those priorities by entering known license plate numbers of immigrants they are investigating and tracking their locations.
Vasudha Talla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said the type of data collected by automated license plate cameras — including the time, place, and location — when a person drives through them is concerning from a civil rights and liberties perspective. Once ICE has access to this data, it raises additional concerns, she said.
"Daily life decisions are often made in cars, and tracking locations through automatic license plate readers could over time paint a clear picture of someone's personal life," Talla told BuzzFeed News. "We oppose ICE’s access to powerful technology because it just fuels their deportation machine."
In a statement, ICE said it doesn't take enforcement action against individuals solely based on information obtained from the license plate reader database.
“ICE personnel check the information against other investigative information, including information from government systems, before taking any action against the individual,” it said. “It is necessary to corroborate the [license plate reader] data prior to taking any action.”
The immigration enforcement agency also said it’s not trying to build a license plate reader database and doesn’t contribute any data to national public or private databases through this contract. The documents, obtained by the ACLU of Northern California in a FOIA lawsuit, indicate that Vigilant Solutions and Thomson Reuters explained to ICE that its access to license plate scans could grow exponentially, just by asking local law enforcement agencies the company retrieves data from.
“This could provide hundreds of millions more LPR [license plate reader] scans available for ICE to search,” Thomson Reuters said in a response to DHS. “Currently there are almost 500 million detection records that are collected by local and state LEAs.”
The metro areas Thomson Reuters said it collected license plate reader data from included Southern California, the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, and New York, among others.
In one ICE document, the agency said not having access to a license plate database would likely result in the arrest rate going down by as much as 20%.
ICE encouraged officers and agents to request scans from local law enforcement agencies with a step-by-step guide on how to ask for the license plate information from local law enforcement officials and it appeared the efforts worked: over 80 law enforcement agencies agreed to hand over license plate scans to ICE officials, according to the documents.
In one email from an ICE officer to a detective, the agent asks if they can run an Arizona license plate for them.
"I am only able to pull from commercial databases for now," the ICE officer said.
Talla said she feels fairly certain that ICE has used the database to deport people, but that they can't be certain until they can find an individual who knows that's how they were found by immigration agents.
In a March 20, 2018, email to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers, a DHS deportation officer said the license plate recognition system can be used to locate people, make connections among individuals they're investigating, and analyze patterns in offenses and offender.
"Users will be able to see where a license plate has been within a specified timeframe," the deportation officer said.
The database also allowed ICE to be automatically notified when a license plate that agents were tracking as part of an ongoing investigation got a new "read" in the database. For criminal investigations, ICE was limited to the time period that fit within the statute of limitations for the crime agents were investigating. For civil immigration issues, ICE was limited to queries to the previous five years.
Through these databases ICE has access to a large amount of data without having to get a warrant or a strong basis for searching for someone's license plate, Talla said.
"ICE can gain a huge amount of data on someone for what we at the ACLU think is not appropriate — for deportations, really the destroying of families and communities," Talla said.