Hoosiers’ Information Fed into Mass Surveillance Database ICE is Using to Track People
Indianapolis — The Hamilton County Sheriff, Hammond Police Department and Munster Police Department are providing residents’ location information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to aid the agency’s mass surveillance efforts, according to records released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. The records reveal that location information in these Indiana communities, along with the location information provided by over 80 local law enforcement nationwide, is powering an expansive automated license plate detector database that ICE is accessing to track people’s daily movements. The documents were obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in May of 2018.
“It is appalling that ICE has added this mass surveillance database to its arsenal, and that our local agencies are compromising the privacy of Hoosiers to aid this overreaching deportation machine in its surveillance efforts,” said Jane Henegar, ACLU of Indiana Executive Director. “The Hamilton County Sheriff, Munster Police Department and Hammond Police Department must immediately stop sharing their residents' information with this intrusive agency.”
The records show more than 9,000 ICE agents have access to a vast automated license plate reader database run by a company called Vigilant Solutions under a $6.1 million contract that the public first learned of last year. The exact scope of ICE’s access to the database, existence and nature of its collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, and broad reach of the surveillance apparatus, however, remained unknown until now.
Vigilant Solution’s database allows the agency to pinpoint the locations of drivers going about their daily private lives, and gives it access to over 5 billion points of location information collected by private businesses like insurance companies and parking lots. ICE agents can also access an additional 1.5 billion records collected by law enforcement agencies. Over 80 local law enforcement agencies, from over a dozen states, have agreed to share license plate location information with ICE. And emails show local police handing driver information over to ICE informally, potentially violating ICE policies.
The ACLU of Indiana is calling on law enforcement to stop sharing residents’ location data with ICE.
Automated license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. When that data – which includes the date, time, and location of each scan – is aggregated over time, it gives law enforcement an intimate portrait of people's lives, including their affiliations, family, interests, activities.
“Drivers, regardless of their immigration status, are getting caught up in this mass surveillance dragnet that gives law enforcement far too much information about people’s lives,” said Vasudha Talla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “Such supercharged surveillance powers inevitably lead to abuse and discriminatory targeting, particularly of communities of color, protestors, religious minorities, and immigrants. And given ICE's egregious record of terrorizing immigrant communities, we have even more reason to be alarmed.”
Law enforcement abuse of automated license plate readers is well-documented. For instance, a police officer in Washington D.C. pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of cars near a gay bar and blackmailing the car’s owners. The DEA contemplated using license plate readers to monitor people who were at a gun show. Since the devices can’t distinguish between those who are selling illegal guns and those who aren’t, a person’s presence at the gun show would have landed them in a DEA database. A SWAT team in Kansas raided a man’s house where his wife, 7-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son lived based in part on the mass monitoring of cars parked at a gardening store. The man was held at gunpoint for two hours while cops combed through his home. The police were looking for a marijuana growing operation. They did not find that or any other evidence of criminal activity in the man’s house.
Vigilant draws its license plate information from the “most populous 50 metropolitan areas” in the country, corresponding to almost 60 percent of the U.S. population. The company encourages law enforcement to share location information collected locally with hundreds of other agencies nationwide, making it “as easy as adding a friend on your favorite social media platform.” The records also include training materials that provide ICE with tools to make friends with local police. These include an interactive map of the United States displaying the agencies using Vigilant software and “a step-by-step guide” containing instructions on requesting access from local agencies to their residents’ location information.
The documents are available here: https://www.aclunc.org/docs/DOCS_031319.pdf
A blog post authored by Talla on the newly released documents is available here: https://www.aclunc.org/blog/documents-reveal-ice-using-driver-location-data-local-police-deportations
The letters to local agencies are available here: https://www.aclunc.org/docs/ALPRAdvocacyLetters.pdf