ICE agents given access to license plate database, documents show

ICE agents given access to license plate database, documents show
© Getty Images

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using over the past year a vast license plate database to identify the location of vehicles associated with immigrants who do not have legal status, according to documents released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

More than 9,000 ICE agents have been given access to the controversial database, which contains hundreds of millions of license plate scans from across the U.S., according to the documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request. ICE employees are able to use the database to obtain information on where individuals have been and when they were there, with data going back as far as five years.


"With access to this database, ICE can pinpoint the exact location of drivers going about their daily lives," Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU, told The Hill. Cagle pointed out that ICE can use the database to identify detailed information on anyone — not just individuals wanted for deportation.

"ICE is not prohibited under this program from tracking the locations of citizens," he said.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Dow falls more than 900 points amid fears of new COVID-19 restrictions | Democrats press Trump Org. about president's Chinese bank account | Boeing plans thousands of additional job cuts Democrats press Trump Organization about president's Chinese bank account Plaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation MORE (D-Ore.), one of the top Senate surveillance hawks, in a statement to The Hill called the database "about the worst idea I have ever heard of."

“Unrestricted law-enforcement access to massive private-sector databases housing location information on hundreds of millions of Americans is clearly an idea the Framers hadn’t considered," Wyden said.

ICE entered into a contract with Thomson Reuters at the end of 2017 for access to the license-plate reader database, which is run by a company called Vigilant Solutions. The documents released by the ACLU reveal details about how the agency has used the database since entering into that contract.

The information in the license plate database comes from commercial cameras mounted around the country — frequently found in parking garages or on parking enforcement vehicles — as well as from local law enforcement agencies.

According to the ACLU, over 80 law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen states have agreed to share license plate location information with ICE.

"The ACLU’s grave concerns about the civil liberties risks of license plate readers take on greater urgency as this surveillance information fuels ICE’s deportation machine," Vasudha Talla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, wrote in a blog post.

The ACLU noted that many communities have license plate scanners, including "high-speed cameras mounted on police cars, road signs, or bridges that can photograph every passing license plate." The scanners record the license plate, time and location of all cars that pass by, data that ICE agents can later search through.

"The information is stored for years, generating a literal and intimate roadmap of people’s private lives," Talla wrote.

The database gives ICE access to detailed information on drivers in the 50 largest metropolitan areas, accounting for almost 60 percent of the country's population, the documents show.

"Our locations, where we live, where we work, and the doctors and businesses we visit, those data points paint a picture of our private lives," Cagle said. "ICE has no business tracking people as they go about their daily lives."

The ACLU said the agency's 2017 privacy guidance on the use of license plate reader technology contains "gaping holes that enable ICE to infringe on civil liberties."

Updated 4:26 p.m.