Private company’s work with immigration authorities raise fears data could be used to track undocumented shoppers
California shopping centers are sending data from license plate readers to a private surveillance technology company that partners with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), according to a new report.
The revelation comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of tech firms and private companies that build tools and provide services for the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive immigration policy. A new research paper this week has also exposed the ways in which prison companies appear to be influencing immigration policy and profiting from expanding partnerships with Ice.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation found that Irvine Company, a real estate developer that operates dozens of malls throughout California, has been conducting vehicle license plate reader surveillance for Vigilant Solutions, a firm that maintains databases and works with law enforcement. The automated license plate recognition technology allows cameras to capture images of plates and link them to GPS locations.
The EFF uncovered a December 2016 disclosure on Irvine Company’s website that it was collecting license plate information along with location and time data and sending it to a “searchable database” operated by Vigilant.
Earlier this year, US officials confirmed that Ice had developed a contract with Vigilant that would give immigration authorities access to the company’s vast database during investigations, sparking privacy concerns and protests. Vigilant has refused to comment on its relationship with Ice.
After the EFF published its report on Tuesday, Irvine Company officials said the firm’s contract with Vigilant specified that the data was “only shared with local police departments”. A spokesman told the Guardian that the technology was in use at three southern California shopping malls – Irvine Spectrum Center in the city of Irvine, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and the Market Place in Tustin.
Dave Maass, the author of the EFF report, told the Guardian he was skeptical of the claims from Irvine Company, which previously had disclosed few details of its surveillance efforts.
“You could imagine a hypothetical situation if a mall has the Vigilant system … somebody pulls into that parking lot. Maybe Ice gets an immediate alert: ‘Here’s the person, go get them,’” he said, noting that the mechanisms of data sharing are unclear since the companies have been secretive.
My worry has been that this will be used to track suspected undocumented people in real time
Dave Maass, report author
It’s difficult to know whether the Vigilant contract actually protects shoppers’ data from ending up in the hands of Ice.
Maass noted that in the past, some agencies have claimed they were only sharing data with local police, but later revealed that this included local Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offices, meaning they were working with Ice. Even liberal California cities that have sanctuary policies restricting cooperation with Ice have also been caught working with federal immigration authorities.
Beyond the shopping malls, there is growing concern about how the license plate tracking could affect immigrant communities, said Maass.
“My worry has been that this will be used to track suspected undocumented people in real time, that it may be used to identify visitors to places that are frequented by undocumented immigrants … or if they find one person who is undocumented, they use the system to reveal their entire network.”
Vigilant did not initially respond to an inquiry, but after publication of this article issued a lengthy statement threatening to take legal action against the not-for-profit.
The company does not share Irvine mall data with Ice, Vigilant said in the statement, adding that law enforcement agencies “do not have the ability” in the Vigilant system to “electronically copy this data or share this data” with other people or agencies such as Ice.
A Vigilant spokeswoman did not respond to a request for the copy of the Irvine contract. Asked about the status of Vigilant’s relationship with Ice, she said the company would not disclose details of “commercial relationships”, but confirmed that it would continue to provide license plate reader “access” to Ice.
Scott Starkey, an Irvine Company spokesman, said in a statement that “Vigilant is required by contract, and have assured us, that [license plate] data collected at these locations is only shared with local police departments”.
Asked for a copy of the contract, Starkey sent the Guardian a one-page letter from an Irvine executive to Vigilant saying it was confirming that Vigilant had not shared any of its data with Ice. The document was dated 11 July, one day after the EFF report was released.
Ice said it “uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations” and said it is “not seeking to build” its own database.
Kim Mohr, a spokeswoman for the city of Irvine’s police department, said in an email that the department uses the license plate data for its own investigations and “never shares the information”, adding that the investigations do not involve Ice or DHS. “We have made numerous arrests thanks to this technology,” she said.
A Newport Beach police spokeswoman said the department had access to Vigilant’s database for “routine patrol operations and criminal investigations”, but that it was not a dataset police could “peruse at large”. She also said the department does share information with other law enforcement agencies, but not with Ice or DHS.
A spokesperson for the Tustin police department, the third agency using the data, did not respond to an inquiry.
Also this week, a study from Loren Collingwood, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, raised further questions about private corporations aiding Ice and benefiting from Trump’s ramped-up enforcement efforts.
The paper found there was increased support for punitive immigration legislation in districts with privately owned or managed Ice detention centers. That suggests that there is a significant link between the presence of these private prisons and lawmakers’ efforts to pass anti-immigrant policies that could fill the facilities in their districts with more detainees.
Collingwood said that lawmakers may perceive these prisons to be a boon for local economies, despite evidence to the contrary, and thus support policies that allow the government to “capture and contain more people”.
“This really strikes at a moral issue,” he said, noting how expanding prison companies targeted rural communities and treated undocumented people as a “good”. “Given Trump’s very harsh immigration policies, these prison companies are at an all-time high in terms of their potential to cash in on these policies.”