A data-collection firm is sharing license plate information with US immigration officials

A computer displays a vehicle’s license plate number, captured in multiple locations by Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) cameras in Long Beach, California.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

A real estate development company that operates shopping malls throughout California is sharing license plate information with a surveillance technology company that in turn provides access to that data to the US Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Irvine Company, which runs 46 shopping centers in California, said it employs the services of surveillance company Vigilant Solutions, which claims to use automatic license plate readers (ALPR) to “keep the local community safe,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital privacy watchdog.

On Wednesday, Irvine Company disclosed the names of three Southern California shopping centers where license plate data was being collected: the Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and The Marketplace in Tustin. All of those shopping centers are located in Orange County. The license plate data is shared with local police departments, but not with ICE, BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday.

In 2017, Vigilant Solutions signed a contract to allow ICE access to its ALPR database, sparking privacy concerns.

“This could mean that ICE can spy on mall visitors without their knowledge and receive near-real-time alerts when a targeted vehicle is spotted in a shopping center’s parking lot,” the EFF said on its website.

Vigilant Solutions also provides the same services to various law-enforcement agencies, insurance companies, debt collectors. In 2016, it collected 2.2 billion license plate photos and was contracted to around 3,000 law enforcement agencies, according to The Atlantic.

Long Beach Police Department Lt. Chris Morgan, administrator of the Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) program, describes the capabilities of his patrol’s plate reader in Long Beach, California.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

Privacy groups have been critical of ALPR and have described it as “a form of mass surveillance.”

According to the EFF, the relationship between Vigilant Solutions and businesses like Irvine Company “allows the government to examine the travel patterns of consumers on private property with little transparency and no consent from those being tracked.”

But law-enforcement groups defended the technology, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a non-profit law enforcement group.

The IACP asserts some of the benefits of the system are:

  • Locating stolen vehicles.
  • Finding suspects in relation to criminal investigations or arrest warrants.
  • Identifying witnesses or victims.
  • Searching for missing children, elderly people, or other missing persons through AMBER and Silver alerts.

Advocates of the ALPR say they are confident that the collected data was shared only with authorized personnel.

“The ALPR camera does not identify any individual or access their personal information through its analysis of license plate numbers,” the IACP said on their website.

“The data captured by the ALPR unit itself is completely anonymous,” the IACP’s website said. “There is no personally identifiable information contained in an ALPR record and the operator can only determine the registered owner of a vehicle by querying a separate, secure state government database of vehicle license plate records, which is restricted, controlled, and audited.”

Some municipalities have rejected Vigilant Solutions’ services outright due to it’s affiliation with ICE and its controversial enforcement policies for undocumented immigrants. In February, the city of Alameda, California rejected a $500,000 contract with Vigilant Solutions.

“Even my colleagues who were very clearly in support of license plate readers still didn’t like the idea of contracting with Vigilant,” Vice Mayor Malia Vella said in The Verge. “It’s a problem how they share this information.”

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