If you didn’t already think that the era of big brother has arrived, the news today that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) will now have access to a nationwide license plate recognition database should certainly convince you. According to a report on The Verge, the system will allow ICE to track the location of vehicles in real time and grant them access to billions of license plate records, creating tremendous concerns amongst privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders.
The Verge found the information in a contract signed by the agency earlier this month and has identified the vendor of the data as Vigilant Solutions, a company that has gathered information from vehicle repossession agencies and local law enforcement agencies to amass a gargantuan vehicle-tracking network generating as many as 100 million sightings per month, each tagged with a date, time, and GPS coordinates of the sighting.
With Vigilant Solution’s database, ICE agents can research everywhere a particular license plate has been seen at anytime over the last five years and help determine an owner’s place of residence and regular parking spots, a handy bit of information when you’re trying to track down and arrest illegal immigrants.
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An ICE spokesperson responded to questions about privacy concerns with this statement:
“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. “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.”
Or, in other words, it’s not our database, we just pay to use it like everyone else.
ICE explained its use of private databases like Vigilant Solutions’ with this reasoning:
“Knowing the previous locations of a vehicle can help determine the whereabouts of subjects of criminal investigations or priority aliens to facilitate their interdiction and removal. In some cases, when other leads have gone cold, the availability of commercial LPR data may be the only viable way to find a subject.”
With ICE increasingly being accused of politically motivated deportations, including targeted sweeps in sanctuary cities, the use of a private license plate database to help them locate people for deportation raises some important questions.
Given the near universal political opposition from both the left and the right to a national database that could allow the government to track every citizen, it’s unlikely that ICE or any other federal agency like the FBI or NSA could legally and successfully implement such a system on their own. The question of why it’s legal or ethical for them to do so through the intermediary of a third -party private company remains to be answered, however.
If the vast majority of people don’t trust the government, which is at least accountable through the electoral process for any behavior that the public finds objectionable enough to vote against, to be able to track their whereabouts, then it’s reasonably certain that they don’t want an unelected, unaccountable corporation possessing and controlling that information for profit and resulting in the same level of access to surveillance data as if the government were in control of it themselves.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agreed that this is an essential question resulting from the revelation of the new contract between ICE and Vigilant Solutions.
“There are people circulating in our society who are undocumented,” he said. “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?”
Forget Big Brother. It’s Big Data that we need to be worried about.