ICE Has Access To ALPR Databases, Bypasses Internal Restrictions By Outsourcing Searches To Local Cops

from the get-all-you-can,-then-ask-for-more dept

ICE has been wanting full access to the billions of license plate records stored in ALPR databases for years. The DHS first floated the idea more than five years ago. It was reined in briefly in response to public backlash and Congressional criticism, but the idea of a national ALPR database was never truly killed off.

ICE was the agency sending out quote requests for a national database access. A few minimal protections were put in place, but all that was holding ICE back was logistics. The contract was finalized at the beginning of last year, hooking ICE up with ALPR records gathered by the hundreds of plate readers operated by local law enforcement agencies. Now, all that third party work is paying off.

More than 80 law enforcement agencies in the US have agreed to share with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) license plate information that supports its arrests and deportation efforts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which obtained a trove of internal agency records.

The documents acquired by the ACLU show that Ice obtained access to a database with license plate information collected in dozens of counties across the United States – data that helped the agency to track people’s locations in real time. Emails revealed that police have also informally given driver information to immigration officers requesting those details in communications that the ACLU said appeared to violate local laws and Ice’s own privacy rules.

When the agency takes the formal, contracted path to ALPR data, it's running through two third parties: Vigilant, the leading manufacturer of plate readers, and Thomson Reuters, a multimedia conglomerate that has added data brokering to its portfolio of journalistic endeavors.

The original proposal limited ICE's access to the 50 biggest metropolitan areas. That's a lot of ground already, but the agreement allows local law enforcement in other areas to give ICE permission to browse their end of the Vigilant database. Not that it ultimately matters. Vigilant doesn't seem to worry too much about siloing off data. Most law enforcement agencies are sharing data with lots of other agencies already, so intermingling is an inevitability.

It also appears there's no expiration data on a lot of the data ICE is accessing. According to the documents, over 9,000 ICE agents have access to years a plate/location data, allowing them to reconstruct people's movements over a long period of time.

Whatever restrictions exist on ICE's access to Vigilant databases are easily avoided.

Emails showed that a police detective in Orange county, California, repeatedly conducted database searches in response to requests from an Ice specialist in criminal investigations. The two appear to have worked together frequently over several years, with the Ice employee providing details of the immigration investigations (such as information from a target’s Facebook page) and the local detective responding with license plate information.

“I am here for ya. :),” the detective wrote in one email to Ice, which included a report. In another exchange, after the Ice officer said “hate to ask” for more reports, the detective responded: “Come on, you don’t really hate to ask.. :).”

As the ACLU points out, these informal requests allow ICE to bypass the internal processes that are supposed to ensure access to this wealth of plate/location data is justified. The communications contained in these documents show ICE repeatedly ignoring these requirements.

At this point, everything will have to be fixed in post. Cops have been utilizing plate readers for years and Vigilant has been storing the billions of plate records generated every year for just as long. The DHS never needed to build a national license plate/location database. One was being built while it put on its little charade about respecting rights and citizens' freedom to move around the country without being surveilled.

The ACLU is demanding legislators enact more privacy protections for this data and engage in some actual oversight, but that ship has been sailing for years. ICE's access was an inevitability. It enacted privacy protections just so it could ignore them by asking local law enforcement to perform database searches. And it was all sold to the public with assurances ALPR tech would hunt down car thieves, kidnappers, and violent criminals. In reality, it's being used to track people who've overstayed their visas.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, alpr, ice, law enforcement, license plate recognition, local police, privacy


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2019 @ 12:26pm

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 18 Mar 2019 @ 1:51pm

      Re:

      Love the comment, but it also gives them an idea of What to regulate..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2019 @ 8:08pm

      Re:

      Exactly, and what's wrong with the law, tracking down people that break the law? Nothing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 19 Mar 2019 @ 10:55am

        What's wrong with the law

        If the law was consistently enforced, maybe. Because then even aristocrats, corporations and public officials would get tracked down.

        But as it is, it's very easy to break the law, and it's very easy to put away people disliked by officials (conspiracy and espionage are old favorites), and it's very easy for prosecutors to engage in prosecutorial discretion and give out mulligans to his friends.

        Our current administration has established that crime is what other people do so your free-for-all methods of hunting down criminals is going to turn into a free-for-all method of hunting down untermenschen. That we tag a crime on them first is just a procedural detail.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    TRX, 18 Mar 2019 @ 12:29pm

    That sort of thing is usually handled by "fusion centers", which, being technically private organizations, gather and distribute intelligence to law enforcement.

    Maybe ICE just want to cut out the middleman and root through the databases directly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2019 @ 5:23pm

      Re:

      I highly doubt the 3rd parties have the right to distribute the private information of millions of people, but if for some reason they do, we should fix that.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2019 @ 12:33pm

    in all honesty, since when has any USA 'security' force given a monkey's fuck about the law? they're full of what everyone else is supposed to do but flout it themselves! any wonder no one with any sense trusts them!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 18 Mar 2019 @ 3:27pm

    ICE Has Access To ALPR Databases

    Because of course they do?

    Surveillance missions don't creep, they infect.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2019 @ 4:57am

    The Fred Rogers Response

    "...police have also informally given driver information to immigration officers..."

    Can you say, "criminal collusion"? Sure you can.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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