ICE officers making arrest (ICE)

ICE taps into license plate recognition tech

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement will soon have access to a database of license plate records that can also track vehicles in near real time.

ICE awarded the contract earlier this month that will give it query-based access to available records from a commercial license plate recognition (LPR) system, according to an FedBizOpps announcement.

The deal was first reported by The Verge, which identified Vigilant as the database provider.

LPR is a technology ICE has been investigating for several years. It issued a similar solicitation in 2014, but it was canceled due to privacy concerns. After the agency wrote a privacy impact assessment in 2015, it then released a second solicitation, but that was cancelled due to “failed price negotiations,” an agency official said. An updated PIA was released Dec. 27, 2017.

“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” ICE 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.”

Vigilant explains on its website that the license plate data is collected from “detections across the county and housed in Vigilant’s cloud” in a secure data center in Virginia.

Users accessing the database will be required to have an Originating Agency Identifier, which are given out by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System Division, according to Vigilant.

Queries to the database would return every location a license plate number has been captured by Vigilant’s system over the previous five years, according to the PIA. The information is captured by LPR cameras on toll roads, parking lots and from vehicle repossession companies and law enforcement agencies. These images are then converted into a computer-readable format and other data --  such as the vehicle make and model, state of registration, GPS coordinates and date and time of the image capture -- is added to the database record.

The search results will include two photographs of the vehicle, the address and time of the nearest place where the LPR captured the license plate, plus web-based interactive maps and the source of the record, according to DHS' 2017 PIA.

The LPR system also includes an alert list, which would allow ICE to upload specific license plate numbers and get a near-real-time email notifications when those plates are been spotted.

The system would be used by two offices within ICE -- Enforcement and Removal Operations and Homeland Security Investigations – in support of its immigration enforcement missions, according to the updated PIA.  ICE will "use the information to identify, arrest, and remove aliens from the United States who pose a risk to public safety or national security (e.g., aliens with a criminal record, fugitive aliens, illegal re-entrants)." The LPR data, the PIA said, "helps ICE develop viable leads based on the location of vehicles that are associated with ICE criminal and administrative law enforcement investigations."

The data will not be used for electronic searches or data mining, "and no other DHS components have assigned roles, responsibilities, or access to the vendor’s LPR data service," according to the PIA.

DHS does acknowledge that there “is a risk that individuals may use information from the commercial LPR data service for purposes beyond what is described in this PIA.” The agency  plans to avoid risk through training and by requiring Vigilant to maintain immutable user access logs.

LPR technology has become a staple of law enforcement. About 70 percent of police departments across the county were using LPRs in 2014, according to IEEE.

And modernization efforts mean they’re becoming even more common. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in December 2017, some of which would go toward increasing the number of LPRs by 60 percent.

And it's not just law enforcement that uses the technology. It's used by managers of parking lots to track vehicles and by gas stations to protect them from drivers who don't pay. The Oklahoma Insurance Department wants to use LPRs to check plate numbers against a database of insured vehicle operators in an attempt to cut down on uninsured drivers.

While surveillance technology is increasingly a part of day-to-day life, some organizations are raising concerns that the systems could violate an individual’s right to privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points to an example from 2012 when the New York Police Department used the technology to target Muslim mosques. These programs in the past have experienced cybersecurity problems, too, such as when the Boston Transportation Department published its entire LRP database online without any password protection, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Given that license plate readers facilitate the mass collection of information on Americans’ movements, that too many jurisdictions are retaining data on innocent Americans for long periods of time, and the inevitable trend towards greater sharing of this data, it is apparent that there are too few rules in place to ensure that license plate reader technology is not abused,” the ACLU concluded in a 2013 report.

Editor's note: This article was updated Jan. 29 to clarify DSH/ICE as the source of information attributed to The Verge. 

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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