The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency issued a sole source contract with license plate reader database company Vigilant Solutions in December, according to a justification and approval notice published Jan. 8.
In a statement to a San Francisco television station, ICE spokesman James Schwab said the agency has issued a contract “to obtain query-based access to a commercially available license plate reader database,” CBS affiliate television station KPIX 5 reported Jan. 26.
The contract with Minnesota-based West Publishing gives ICE access to West partner Vigilant Solutions, based in Livermore, Calif. Vigilant provides license plate and facial recognition systems to law enforcement agencies across the U.S., KPIX 5 reported. It also has done business with federal agencies at least since 2013.
Vigilant Solutions had $790,000 in federal contract obligations in fiscal 2017, mostly for subscriptions to its LPR data, according to Federal Procurement Data System records analyzed by GovTribe. Since 2013, the company has contracted with the Labor Department Inspector General, Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Department, Forest Service, FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Patrol and ICE.
According to the Vigilant Solutions website, “An LPR detection consists of a color image of the vehicle, an infrared image of the license plate, the license plate read as interpreted by the system, a time and date stamp, GPS coordinates of the vehicle making the license plate capture, as well as information on the operator of the LPR system and the camera making the capture.”
As first reported in The Verge, Vigilant will give ICE access to billions of license plate records.
“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” Schwab said in his statement. He said ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader (LPR) database and “will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract.”
In a March 2015 Privacy Impact Statement for buying LPR data from a commercial provider, ICE acknowledged a range of privacy concerns, including that, in aggregate, LPR data can “provide details about an individual’s private life, such as frequenting a place of worship or participating in protests and meetings, thereby implicating constitutionally-protected freedoms.”
The impact statement goes on to note: “ICE is mindful of the privacy and civil liberties implications of accessing commercial LPR data and intends to build constraints into any solicitation for LPR data services that will allow the use of this tool in ways that mitigate the privacy and civil liberties concerns. A significant mitigation is that ICE does not intend to create its own database of commercial LPR information but will only acquire data when there is a need for it to carry out its work. A further mitigation is that ICE will create a framework to guide its commercial LPR data acquisition that reflects policy constraints while permitting appropriate operational use of this tool.”
Vigilant Solutions “is not at liberty to share any contractual details,” the company wrote in a statement to KPIX 5. “This is a standard agreement between our company, our partners, and our clients.” However, the company’s website notes: “There is no personally identifiable information contained in a license plate capture. In fact, only with permissible purpose under the Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) may an officer connect a license plate to an individual by accessing other systems.”
Most of Vigilant’s data comes from its partner, Digital Recognition Network (DRN), which provides vehicle location data and analytics to insurance and financial companies for car repossession and other purposes. According to the Vigilant website, DRN employs more than 550 affiliates nationwide to collect license plate images using employing Vigilant-made mobile licence plate readers. A real-time ticker on the DNR website shows the company has made more than 6 billion vehicle sightings.