Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Guest blogger: Katherine Abalos, University of San Francisco law student:
Technological advances have provided Americans with a number of conveniences and luxuries while also posing a number of security concerns, a fact that most are aware of. As we allow Alexa to take the reins on small tasks around the home, many worry of the listening power of organizations that could use that data to manipulate us without our knowledge. For some, the government overhearing our nightly debate over what to have for dinner seems trivial but for others, such an intrusion can have a detrimental impact on their life and presence in the United States.
A company that collects, and sells data regarding license plate information recorded in real time, called Vigilant Solutions (“Vigilant”), has partnered with law enforcement agencies to crack down on threats to public safety. According to the ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC), the database is utilized by some 3,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. Over 2 billion license plates have been recorded by the company to date, with 80-100 million records being updated each month. The database provides details that make drivers easy to find and easy to trap if placed in the wrong hands.
In January, ICE signed a contract with Vigilant, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the agency can use the database to drill down into the data for a single license plate to find where the person has lived, worked, gone to church, ran errands, and took their kids to school for the past five years. ICE can also add a license plate to a hotlist which then sends immediate sightings in real time directly to ICE. ICE has already made it clear, according to ACLU-NC, that it intends to use the database to “identify, arrest, and remove aliens from the United States.”
The agency would be unable to possess a database like this on their own, because it clearly creates public concern for privacy. A database such as this, typically, would be rejected by Congress; but, since the database is accessed by way of a private contract with a third-party, apparently ICE does not need Congress’s approval to utilize it. Such technology expands the reach that ICE has in monitoring immigrants. The Verge reported that it would be nearly impossible for someone on the hotlist to stay unnoticed, posing a significant threat to immigrants in the United States without documentation who pose no threat to public safety.
Currently, law enforcement must produce sufficient evidence to a judge that tracking a person’s car would not violate the Fourth Amendment to obtain a warrant. However, with Vigilant’s database, law enforcement needs no warrant to gain access of years of tracking records. Vigilant argues that their product does not serve as a GPS tracker, according to The Atlantic, yet the data recorded provides law enforcement with the same if not better information about an individual’s whereabouts.
There are a few of limitations that ICE has implemented to regulate their use of the database, such as audit logs and a one year limit to plates that can be registered on the hotlist; however, for many organizations and cities, these limitations do not do enough to protect immigrant communities. Last week, Alameda County reviewed a $500,000 contract with Vigilant as activists urged city council members to protect the safety of their community. The members voted against signing the contract listing Vigilant’s business with ICE as a reason.
Other representatives have been working to pass legislation like S.B. 712 which would provide a small defense for people in California. The bill was intended to allow drivers to cover their license plates while their vehicle is parked. Currently, drivers are allowed to cover their license plates only if they cover their entire car while it is parked. S.B. 712 was intended to make it legal for drivers to cover their license plate without the need for covering their entire car. Unfortunately, this bill failed to pass the California State Senate—a defeat for a small shield to a giant threat. Our communities have a lot of work to do to ensure the protection of our privacy especially for our immigrant community members.