The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today revealed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allegedly circumvented state laws and federal privacy guidelines when it purchased access to a commercial database for the purpose of conducting mass surveillance.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU of Northern California indicate that more than 9,000 ICE agents currently have access to a license plate database containing information on as much as 60 percent of the US population. You can view the documents here.
The driver location database is operated by Vigilant Solutions, a for-profit commercial business that collects license plate images from license plate readers (LPRs). According to the ACLU:
ICE has access to over 5 billion data points of location information collected by private businesses, like insurance companies and parking lots, and can gain access to an additional 1.5 billion records collected by law enforcement agencies.
Right off the bat, there’s a red-light ethical issue: why are government law enforcement agencies giving or selling data to a commercial company so that the Federal government can then pay a reported $6.1 million to buy it back?
But potential taxpayer fraud aside, the bigger issue is privacy. Because ICE reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, it has less oversight than agencies that report to the Department of Justice. This means, essentially, we have to simply trust that DHS and ICE will never surveil a US citizen without a warrant or credible suspicion that person is a terrorist – despite the fact that doing so appears to be a common practice for DHS and ICE.
The problem here is that ICE agents are, apparently, not beholden to the same privacy guidelines as ICE is at the organizational level. Where ICE itself cannot compile a database of citizen information for the purpose of surveillance, at least not in accordance with its own privacy guidelines, it circumvents that issue by paying for general access to a commercial database and giving agents individual access.
Worse, ICE agents exploited California law enforcement officers’ willingness to illegally assist in deportation crackdowns by soliciting direct access to local law enforcement databases. ICE claims it cannot access these kinds of databases without expressed consent from the organization, but the ACLU’s FOIA documents revealed federal agents solicited local agents to either give them direct access or perform database searches for them. This is illegal in California.
According to the ACLU:
Senate Bill 34 and the California Values Act (SB 54) — passed to protect privacy and immigrant safety — prohibit local law enforcement agencies from sharing license plate information and personal information for immigration enforcement or with out-of-state or federal agencies. Many localities have gone beyond that to adopt ordinances to provide sanctuary to immigrants.
The dangers faced by the US immigrant population – both registered and undocumented – under the current US regime have been well, and factually documented. But these ICE documents clearly show that the privacy of all US citizens has been breached in the White House’s quest to eradicate the immigrant population.
Our right to privacy, as US citizens, is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
ICE’s continuing circumvention of the law and disregard for citizens’ right to privacy is further testament to the US government’s willingness to abuse its power — in defiance of its own laws — in order to pursue its partisan anti-immigration agenda.