ICE To Start Tracking License Plates Nationwide

The system can help find undocumented immigrants, but some worry about privacy for law-abiding residents.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will now have access to Vigilant Solutions’ extensive license plate tracking

database nationwide, Vice reports. This gives the government agency with nationwide jurisdiction access to billions of license plate location records and real-time location tracking across the country, which is raising the eyebrows of privacy advocates.

According to a Department of Homeland Security Privacy Impact Assessment, ICE will be able to access Vigilant’s data in two ways. One of them is to manually enter specific information about a particular license plate, which will query Vigilant’s database for up to five years of records. This data is collected through Vigilant’s user network including traffic and toll cameras, repossession agencies, and local law enforcement agencies. The other method is to receive an instant alert when a license plate on a “hot list” is detected and its data is uploaded to the system. 

This data can be used to determine someone’s travel patterns, locations they visit regularly, and even other people they know if they park near the same cars and license plates regularly. ICE itself will not be contributing data to the system, despite—or perhaps because of—its extensive reach.

Privacy advocates are concerned that ICE’s access to this location data is an excessive invasion of privacy, and not just for undocumented 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?” senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, who studies license plate readers with the ACLU, told Vice.

The DHS Privacy Impact Statement spells out the limitations on this data within which ICE officials must operate. But a tracking system such as Vigilant’s would likely never have been allowed to exist under government control. By contracting with a private company the government has gained access to data it would otherwise not have been allowed to collect.

As ICE’s investigations expand from undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime to include all undocumented immigrants, fears abound as to just how far the government’s power to track and monitor us will go.