ICE Strikes Deal With Surveillance Firm
What does Vigilant Solutions’ license plate reader deal with APD mean for the city’s stonewall of ICE?
As part of their ramped-up deportation efforts, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 145 undocumented immigrants in South and Central Texas, including 45 from Austin, over seven days ending Feb. 16. While 86 immigrants – mostly men from Mexico – had criminal convictions, 39 were arrested based on previous immigration encounters, and 20 had no prior immigration history or encounters. Those arrested ranged from 18 to 62 years old. Dan Bible, field office director for ICE San Antonio, said the results "are a clear indication of ICE's commitment regarding the role we play in keeping our communities safe." Of course, that statement – and the federal figures – should be taken with a grain of salt; ICE has a history of undercutting arrest totals and scrambling to justify non-criminal arrests.
With anti-immigrant fervor, ICE has recently taken a troubling step that could help them locate undocumented immigrants more quickly. Thanks to a deal struck with private surveillance firm Vigilant Solutions, one of the U.S.'s largest data sharing networks, ICE now has access to a nationwide trove of billions of license plate records, and capabilities for real-time location tracking, according to a report published in the Verge. Vigilant collects license plate data from vehicle repossession agencies and other private companies as well as local law enforcement departments, meaning ICE now has the potential to track every location a plate has been over a five-year span and get updates any time a new record of a certain license plate is found. Earlier this month, the city of Alameda, Calif., axed a Vigilant contract due largely to the company's newfound ties to ICE.
"This type of collection of license plate information is really problematic for a lot of reasons, including privacy," says Kali Cohn, staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas. "You can learn a significant amount of sensitive information from plates, like where someone goes for medical care. And this contract with ICE compounds the many privacy concerns." In 2016, the city of Kyle rescinded its agreement with Vigilant amid those privacy concerns, including of possible data breaches, from residents and city leaders. The readers also drew criticism for criminalizing the poor, as the technology tracked down those with outstanding warrants, allowing officials to collect fees from suspects if they paid a 25% surcharge to Vigilant.
The Austin Police Department is one of several law enforcement agencies that still has a contract with the surveillance firm. In 2016, the city of Austin entered into a $900,000 five-year agreement with Vigilant to buy its Automatic License Plate Recognition System for APD's Auto Theft Interdiction Project. Cameras are mounted on patrol vehicles, portable trailers, and stationary roadside structures to automatically capture images of vehicle license plates to identify stolen vehicles or fleeing cars, with the hope of reducing auto theft and other crime. APD argued that the technology replaces running license plate data manually, a "timely, inefficient and ultimately costly" exercise.
In a letter to APD from Vigilant that we obtained, the firm notes that ICE "will not receive access to your agency data unless you complete a direct agency-to-agency share with them." APD spokesperson Anna Sabana told me: "Our data is not shared with ICE except with APD's explicit approval and we have not shared any of our data with ICE." Asked if APD has future plans to share the data with ICE, Sabana said it does not. APD has publicly supported the immigrant community and stood against Texas' Senate Bill 4, meant to punish sanctuary cities. However, Sabana says APD "will be" sharing the data with the Travis County Sheriff's Office, Williamson County Sheriff's Office, and the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, potentially opening the door to ICE getting their hands on the sensitive data through those groups. (Questions to WCSO and ARIC were not returned.)
The ACLU's Cohn warns that contract agreements can be amended and changed over time without notice to the public, therefore opening up problematic possibilities. (Asked if APD would alert the public if they changed course, Sabana responded, "Not applicable since we will not be sharing.") The civil liberties organization points to its Community Control Over Police Surveillance model ordinance, signed on by several cities nationwide, that would require public oversight of surveillance contracts. Austin has not yet signed on to that ordinance, according to the ACLU.