License plate data collection is apparently the one Obama-era program that the Trump administration has no interest in rolling back. The Verge has an eye-opening story about how the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has officially gained access to Vigilant Solutions’ nationwide license plate recognition database, according to a contract finalized earlier this month.
ICE first tested Vigilant’s system in 2012, to see how effective it was at tracking undocumented immigrants. It liked what it saw, apparently, and put out an official call for technology, which immediately sparked an outcry among civil rights groups. This led to the cancellation of the call and a whole bunch of back-pedaling. Homeland Security tried again, though, but that apparently did not lead to a contract until now.
ICE claims it is “not seeking to build a license plate reader database” and “will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract,” which is the same argument it used back in 2015. According to The Verge, ICE will instead use Vigilant Solutions’ database of more than 2 billion license plate photos collected from vehicle repossession agencies and other groups that are into that sort of thing.
The tech is pretty impressive and wholly frightening: A database search could reveal every place a given license plate has been spotted in the last five years, including the owner’s home, office, and where they hang out. If they are on the move, license plate data can be pulled from police dashcams and readers on bridges and toll booths—and ICE agents can receive instantaneous email alerts whenever a particular license plate hits.
We’ll just be curled up in a ball until the inevitable ACLU lawsuit.