ICE Finally Gets The Nationwide License Plate Database It's Spent Years Asking For

from the papers-please,-says-ICE-to-all-vehicles-in-the-nation dept

ICE is finally getting that nationwide license plate reader database it’s been lusting after for several years. The DHS announced plans for a nationwide database in 2014, but decided to rein that idea in after a bit of backlash. The post-Snowden political climate made many domestic mass surveillance plans untenable, if not completely unpalatable.

Times have changed. The new team in the White House doesn’t care how much domestic surveillance it engages in as long as it might aid in rooting out foreign immigrants. The first move was the DHS’s updated Privacy Impact Assessment on license plate readers — delivered late last year — which came to the conclusion that any privacy violations were minimal compared to the national security net benefits.

The last step has been finalized, as Russell Brandom reports for The Verge.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has officially gained agency-wide access to a nationwide license plate recognition database, according to a contract finalized earlier this month. The system gives the agency access to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking, raising significant concerns from civil libertarians.

For those counting tax beans, the good news is this database won’t cost much. Billions of license plate records have already been collected (and continue to be collected). All the winning contractor has to do is hook ICE up to the firehose.

The source of the data is not named in the contract, but an ICE representative said the data came from Vigilant Solutions, the leading network for license plate recognition data. “Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” spokesperson Dani Bennett said in a statement. “ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader database, and will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract.”

Nice use of wiggle words to minimize ICE’s new surveillance power. ICE won’t “build” a database. Great, but it doesn’t need to. Vigilant has been collecting records for years via private companies and partnerships with law enforcement agencies. Around two billion plate/location records are already stored by Vigilant, presumably indefinitely. According to the Verge report, ICE will have access to at least five years of records for historical searches.

But ICE won’t be just be diving into Vigilant’s plate record archives. ICE will also be able to hand Vigilant “hot lists” for automatic notification any time the nation’s many ALPR cameras capture a shot of targeted license plates.

ICE agents can also receive instantaneous email alerts whenever a new record of a particular plate is found — a system known internally as a “hot list.” (The same alerts can also be funneled to the Vigilant’s iOS app.) According to the privacy assessment, as many as 2,500 license plates could be uploaded to the hot list in a single batch, although the assessment does not detail how often new batches can be added.

According to the report, ICE first tried out Vigilant’s system in 2012. It hoped to go live in 2014, but the Snowden documents chilled enthusiasm for mass surveillance temporarily. Now, the system is ready to roll, pre-stocked with a couple billion plate records for ICE to peruse as it expands its enforcement activities past the deportation of foreign criminals.

There are few nods to privacy, but they’re mostly useless. ICE owns it own ALPR cameras but those won’t feed into this database, which means other law enforcement agencies won’t have access to ICE-generated plate records. Hot lists aren’t forever. They’ll expire after a year. And there will be audit trails for ICE agents who use the system, although it remains to be seen how serious ICE is about punishing misuse of this authority.

There’s not much that citizens can do to keep their inland plates from becoming part of ICE’s border enforcement activity. Most states require visible, legible license plates at all times, even when parked at homes or private businesses. One state, however, is doing something about that. California legislators recently offered up a bill that would provide a little pocket of privacy for citizens and their vehicles.

S.B. 712 would allow drivers to apply a removable cover to their license plates when they are lawfully parked, similar to how drivers are currently allowed to cover their entire vehicles with a tarp to protect their paint jobs from elements. While this would not prevent ALPRs from collecting data from moving vehicles, it would offer privacy for those who want to protect the confidentiality of their destinations.

Unfortunately, this legislation has struggled to find enough support to get it to the governor’s desk. As the EFF reports, state senators who have stated support for pushing back against the White House’s anti-immigrant policies failed to show support for a bill that would have slowed ICE’s acquisition of plate records from their state. The initial vote, however, took place before the Verge broke the story of ICE’s partnership with Vigilant Systems. Things could change on January 31’s vote, now that new information has come to light.

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Comments on “ICE Finally Gets The Nationwide License Plate Database It's Spent Years Asking For”

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38 Comments
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Constitutional right to bear vehicles.

Actually there is.

The Ninth amendment. Essentially you have to have good reason to ban a thing, and danger is not a good reason. The Second Amendment specifying the right to bare arms was to indicate that even weapons (which are explicitly dangerous) are not dangerous enough to be banned. Much the way that political speech, press and association, (which are explicitly offensive) are not offensive enough to be banned.

Your right to bear arms includes your right to bear cars, or any other article that is expressive, utilizable or even simply fun to own.

We can get extreme with this. So long as state agents (such as Strategic Air Command) have the right to nuclear weapons, then the civil populace must have the same right. If the US Constitution is the highest law of the land, the only way to criminalize nukes is to also deny the right to the state (and agents thereof). We’ve already determined that state agents are no more capable of rational use of nukes than the ordinary Joe.

(This is not to say Ordinary Joe is competent enough to even vote let alone brandish a gun, just that the Ordinary Joe with a badge is equally incompetent. Even after we train him. We have to make do with everyone being as stupid as Ordinary Joe.)

If we decide (which generally we have) that there are international laws above the US Constitution, then you may not have the right to salted nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and bioagents. But then our government is not supposed to have them either.

Qwertygiy says:

Re: Re: Constitutional right to bear vehicles.

I disagree with your assessment. The ninth amendment states,

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

In basic English: "The fact that we don’t explicitly tell you that you’re allowed to do it, does not mean that you are forbidden from doing it."

That certainly does not mean you are explicitly allowed to do it just because the Constitution doesn’t say you can. Otherwise, practically all our laws would be useless.

In terms of the specific weaponry argument: the right to bear arms is not the right to bear any which kind of arms, and it is not the right to do something which is dangerous. And this is reflected by many, many current laws.

  • Federal laws requiring registrations and gun permits.
  • Federal and state laws banning automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, concealed weapons, flamethrowers, or poisonous darts.
  • Federal laws forbidding nuclear weaponry. (They do exist, actually, in quite large numbers)

In terms of court decisions specifically defining the right to bear arms, the current precedent is District of Columbia v. Heller:

**The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. […] Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Given that it’s private companies collecting these license plate records by the billions, they can sell them to private customers too. Say, political campaigns, reporters and talk-show hosts.

Think of how both parties used research firm Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research about Trump, and how once the dossier was leaked to reporters it became a major scandal.

Once the licence plate databases become the focus of a similar scandal, THEN you’ll see legislation to protect privacy.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can see the sales of plastic anti-camera license plate covers going through the roof.

I use them myself, because I like to blast my car stereo for safety. They say loud pipes save lives. Loud car stereos do the same, and get the the attention of distracted drivers, and blasting my stereo has saved me from accidents several times.

I heard of red light cameras and speed cameras being equipped with the “noise snare”, which detects loud pipes or loud stereos, and then sends you a ticket in the mail for loud pipes or or loud stereo.

Having these covers prevents my number from being seen at an angle, and prevents the camera from getting my license number, so I don’t get a $1000 ticket for loud car stereos. where I live, local city ordinance does have a $1000.

And having that did save from a loud stereo ticket, as I did see the flash go off once going through one intersection, and the light was not red. Having one of these covers that prevent the plate from being seen at an angle, and preventing the camera from getting your number.

These plastic do work, as having one of those on my plates did save me from getting a $1000 loud stereo ticket.

If you like your car stereo loud, you need to get one of these one your plates, so that there are any “noise snare” cameras operating, they will not be able to give you a ticket for loud car stereo. Having those on my plates saved me from a $1000 camera ticket for loud car stereo at least one time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There are distracted drivers out there, where only something like loud pipes or loud car stereo will get their attention. People who who text and drive, hold a phone to their ear while driving, or do things like shave while driving or put on make up while driving are not paying attention.

By having my car stereo blasting, I get their attention sooner, and it has, like I said, saved me from accidents several times.

And I play all kinds of music, not just the “ghetto” stuff that most play. I play rock, rap, country, pop, standards, pretty much anything that ever was in the Hot 100.

My playlist includes new stuff like Katy Perry or Ariana Grande, and also includes a lot of old stuff, like AD/DC, Britney Spears, Madonna, Elton John, Hall and Oates, Michael Jakscon, and much much more. I currently have a 3,942 track song library. I play music for pretty much any taste. I just load that onto my phone, and plug the phone into the car stereo.

I also do not have that thumpa-thumpa bass, so I am not nearly as annoying as most who play their car stereos loud.
I can get it loud without doing that.

When it comes to people who blast their car stereos, I am a different breed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I would rather a loud stereo than a loud exhaust, more more pleasant to listen to.

Like, I am different breed than others when it comes to loud car stereos in that I get it loud without that thumpa-thumpa bass, and that I play music for all tastes, from library of 3,942 songs.

While I have downloaded anything pirated in something like 15 years, a library that large still might raise some suspicion when re-entering the USA, which is why I erase them all from the phone, and delete Poweramp, before crossing the border. Even a collection that large that is legal, might generate suspicion, you never know, which is why I erase the music from my phone, and delete the poweramp app. I keep a dual boot and hidden partition on my laptop, where CBP will not find my music. I have the computer set, by default, to boot automatically from the main partition, so that scanning all the files on my laptop will not find any of my music.

I just keep the computer booted up, so I have to reboot, and CBP or CBSA will never be the wiser of what I have. This does not violate either Canadian or USA laws.

I can then reinstall Poweramp and recopy my music back to phone in about 2 hours.

Deleting all my music and uninstalling Poweramp from my phone does not violate any current laws either in Canada, or the USA, where my phone is more likely to be searched.

If you have an app you don’t want them to see, just delete it from your phone, before crossing the border.

Like I said, even though my entire collection is legal, having that many tracks might still raise suspicion, which is why I take steps to keep CBSA or CBP from finding my music. And, again, this does not currently violate either Canadian or USA laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course people, like me, who regularly drive to Mexico, do not keep their license plates in the frame, so this wold not work

In Mexico, if you park illegally, a cop come along with a screwdriver and take your plates off. People have figured out that can you can defeat this by keeping your plates taped up inside the back of your windows, instead of in the the frame.

This is why the cameras that record license numbers of those crossing the border into Mexico will not record some people exiting the counry, because where the plate is positioned in most back windows and windshields will make them invisible to the camera.

Whenever I plan drive into Mexico, I do that, so that a Mexican cop who comes along with a screwdriver cant get to the plates.

But this also means that when when I cross the border into Mexico, Homeland Security’s cameras that record license plates of those exiting the USA will not get my license plate number. All their cameras will see is a car going through with no license plate in the frame, because it is taped up in the back of the window, which is why my outbound drives into Mexico because my plates are taped up to my fron and rear windows, instead of in the frame.

And people who are in the know about Mexican cops carrying screwdrivers do that. One apartment manager here, a few years ago, from Mexico, never kept her license in the frames, so if she wanted to take a weekend car trip to Mexico, she would just hop in and go. Here in California, she drove around all the time with her license plates taped up inside her windows.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Forgive my ignorance of Mexican police policies.

The thing I then wonder is, if their policy is to confiscate your license plates, what’s to stop them from smashing your rear window with a window punch and removing the plate that way?

Here in the US it’s established the police are not responsible for damages when they raid your house with door rams and grenades.

Mexican police departments may have more concern about common courtesy than US departments. Go figure.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: License plates in windows.

I was commenting that the police are Mexico are surprisingly considerate to respect the integrity of the car if their policy is to seize the plate.

They even will use a screwdriver, rather than just tearing the plate off

And if the plate is secured behind glass the police of Mexico would rather not seize the plate at all rather than access it by breaching the glass.

Here in the US, when the police want a thing, they’ll remove it with a oxyacetylene torch to get it, the condition of your vehicle be damned.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: "Right of birth"

That’s the same thing as Divine right of Kings

Which is not even one step away from right by force, id est jungle law.

Which conflicts by your statement If reduces by even one the number of illegal immigrants murdering US citizens, I’m ALL for it. given those murderers are just asserting their rights against an enemy society: yours.

The problem with outlawing a people, you see, is then you can’t really complain when they fight back in reprisal, and massacre your society to the infant. You’ve established that no less is acceptable to be done to them, so they have not just a right, but a need to pre-empt your atrocities on them.

The Constitutional Republic that was the United States was crafted with the intent to stop that nonsense. But evidently, some people think we’re still feudal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why does ICE need the waste time and money on License plate readers now? All they have to do is go out to a Home Depot and round up a whole bunch of Illegals. I see a bunch of them hanging out near the Home Depot near me.

These are people taking jobs away from American’s doing work at a lower cost. Illegals hurt poor American’s the most. The Illegals take the jobs, the pay stays low. Supply and Demand. Lots of supply of workers means you don’t have to up your pay to get someone. Most are not here out in the fields picking stuff in fields on farms.

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