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Sparking Far-Reaching Rights Concerns, ICE Now Has Powerful Ability to Track License Plates Nationwide

Development fuels concerns about possible civil liberties violations

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detain an immigrant on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detain an immigrant on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now has access to a nationwide license plate recognition database—a trove of billions of records that's growing by the day.

The development, first reported by The Verge on Friday, sparks civil liberties concerns and comes as the federal agency appears to be ramping up its efforts to round up immigrants.

"Are we as a society, out of our desire to find those people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?"The database is not one built by ICE itself but by Vigilant Solutions, the reporting continues. A contract was awarded last month, according to documents posted online, but "comes after years of internal lobbying by the agency."

Vigilant Solutions says its license plate recognition tool can be used in several ways, including getting alerts when a specific plate—or a batch of up to 2,500 license plates—is seen; obtaining historical data on a plate's locations; and by looking up an address of a crime to see what vehicles may have been in the vicinity.

As DHS notes in a privacy update (pdf) posted days after the contract was awarded, Vigilant's data comes "from at least 25 states and 24 of the top 30 most populous metropolitan statistical areas within the United States," and is captured via "toll road cameras, parking lot cameras, vehicle repossession companies, and law enforcement agencies."

The privacy update further notes that "ICE may share this information with other entities such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, and state and local police departments in furtherance of criminal law enforcement investigations conducted as part of a multi-agency task force in which those entities are participating."

"As with any law enforcement tool," ThinkProgress notes," its mere existence does not immediately connote abuse or civil rights violations, but a system like this would give an administration obsessed with halting and reversing immigration of both documented and undocumented people unprecedented ability to track down nearly anyone it wanted."

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU, told The Verge, "There are people circulating in our society who are undocumented." He added, "Are we as a society, out of our desire to find those people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?"

The Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over ICE, already uses license plate reader technology at the border, and as one observer noted, "Local law enforcement agencies have been sharing ALPR data with ICE for many years, but access to Vigilant's database vastly expands their reach."

The Verge adds that "the biggest concern for critics is the sheer scale of Vigilant's network, assembled almost entirely outside of public accountability."

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