ICE has access to driver location data from police, some in violation of Calif. law: ACLU

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The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday called for an immediate halt to information sharing by police departments with ICE, saying they have records showing that more than 9,000 federal immigration officers have gained access to a database operated by a Bay Area company.

The company, Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions, did not immediately respond for comment. The $6.1 million contract gives ICE access to the Vigilant database through September 2020.  

According to San Francisco-based ACLU Attorney Vasudha Talla, 12 California police departments ranging from Union City to Merced in California are "feeding their residents’ personal information to ICE, even when it violates local privacy laws or sanctuary policies." There are about 70 additional police departments from across the United States that are also sharing, for a total number of 80, according to the documents. Some, but not all, are sanctuary states like California. 

In an interview, Talla said that it's unclear if police departments aren't aware of California law, which forbids sharing of personal information with ICE as well as sharing license plate information out of state. 

The ACLU did not, and could not, provide any concrete evidence that immigrants have been deported because of this information sharing, Talla acknowledged.

"ICE doesn't tell you much of anything," she said.

In a statement, ICE said in part that the agency "does not take enforcement action against any individual based solely on the information obtained from the vendor's LPR service. ICE personnel check the information...before taking any action against the individual." (Read the full statement here.)

The ACLU is basing its findings on more than 1,800 pages released by ICE and analyzed by David Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  (See page 1832 and 3 of PDF.)  In addition, the ACLU uncovered some emails, including one from the La Hambra Police Department in Orange County to Homeland Security, about running a license plate as a favor, showing police have handed over driver information over to ICE informally, even if state law forbids it. 

But at least one department took issue with the information being released.

Union City Police Capt. Victor Derting told KTVU in an interview he is perplexed by the data and said the ACLU never called him to fact check. There are no automated license plate readers in the entire city, he said, and he insisted that police are not sharing any data with ICE.

Derting did acknowledge, however, that his department uses Vigilant technology as a "crime-fighting tool." But he said he has no idea why his department shows up on the ICE data sharing list. 

The ACLU said that he should find out.

"That is clearly something they need to figure out why they're on the list," Talla responded when asked about the discrepency. "Is any information being taken from them? This is strange and concerning that they're on the list. Union City needs to ask more questions with Vigilant and ICE as to how they ended up on that list."

In a statement, Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan told KTVU that the city is "reviewing the information in the letter we received today from the ACLU...We look forward to meeting with ACLU representatives to discuss this mater further once we have completed our review." 

The two dozen police agencies who use the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center are not supposed to share information with ICE because of the state's sanctuary state policy, according to executive director Mike Sena.

"It is listed on all of our sites, it's listed that this shall not be used for immigration purposes," Sena told 2 Investigates in February. "It's got to be used for some crime or criminal activity and we enumerate the types of crimes it has to involve for a person to get access to it."

Dan Mahoney, a spokesman for the intelligence center based in San Francisco, told 2 Investigates on Wednesday that he does not like how the ACLU is characterizing the findings. Police departments are allowed to share data with Homeland Security Investigations, which looks into drug trafficking and human smuggling; and Customs and Border Patrol, both of which fall under ICE.  But the California agencies cannot share with the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations division, which removes immigrants from the United States.  Mahoney said to that end, he has already contacted the ICE ERO division and removed those specific individual agents from his system to prevent any type of sharing the ACLU is alleging. 

Mahoney pointed out that the ACLU findings weren't clear as to which ICE divisions were involved. He did acknowledge that those various branches of ICE could share with each other, but that was beyond his control. 

According to records obtained by the ACLU, more than 9,000 ICE officers have gained access to the Vigilant system under a $6.1 million contract that the public first learned of last year. 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. The data points are collected through Automated License Plate Readers, which are cameras stationed along freeways and neighborhoods that pick up license plates and ping police when the cars are considered on a 'hot list.'

In addition, the documents, obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information request, reveal:

  • As part of the contract proposal, the companies said they would provide ICE with commercially collected location information about drivers from the “most populous 50 metropolitan areas in the US.” ICE could also accept additional data collected by local and state law enforcement agencies already using Vigilant’s software.
  • ICE encouraged its agents to request access to the local law enforcement data, and Vigilant’s software could facilitate those requests.
  • The database offered an “extremely successful method and system of locating and apprehending targets," ICE said in contract documents. If the agency did not have access to the information, “the arrest rate would decline by as much as 20%." 

"We already knew that ICE engages in egregious conduct: from arresting a father dropping off his daughter at school to detaining a woman in court seeking a protective order against an abuser," Talla wrote in a blog post. "But adding license plate surveillance with its attendant misuse — police spying on Muslim Americans or unlawfully detaining a black woman at gunpoint — magnifies ICE’s threats to community safety. And now we know which local police departments are helping ICE terrorize immigrant communities by sharing license plate information."

Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland's Privacy Commission and the co-founder of the #DeportICE Coalition, said he's very concerned with what the ACLU found. Ironically, Hofer was detained in November when a license plate reader in Hercules targeted his car as stolen, when it had actually been recovered. 

"This research from the ACLU further demonstrates the need for our sanctuary contracting ordinance, and Assemblymember Bonta's proposed AB1332," Hofer said. "World War II showed us the harm that can come from data collected for a benign purpose, like census data, being used for another more harmful purpose, the targeting of immigrants in our communities. If California is truly a sanctuary state, then we need to make it a reality."