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Vigilant And Its Customers Are Lying About ICE's Access To license plate reader Records

Published: March 27, 2019
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Source: Tech Dirt

Everyone's hooking up ICE with automatic license plate reader (ALPR) data. And everyone's misleading the public about it, starting with ALPR manufacturer, Vigilant. The EFF has been investigating California law enforcement's data sharing claims with relation to its Vigilant ALPRs and finding their public statements are directly contradicted by internal communications obtained with public records requests.

Vigilant tries to keep as much information about data sharing under wraps by forcing purchasers to sign restrictive non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements. Law enforcement agencies are secretive by default, so this allows them to double down on opacity. Vigilant has taken a hardline approach to negative press, threatening journalists with lawsuits for asking too many questions and publishing the answers they've received.

Last summer, EFF volunteer Zoe Wheatcroft, a high school student in Mesa, Ariz., discovered a curious document on a website belonging to the Irvine Company, a real estate developer based in Orange County. The document showed that private security patrols were using ALPR to gather data on customers at Irvine Company-owned shopping malls . As EFF reported, Irvine Company then transferred that information to Vigilant Solutions, a controversial ALPR vendor well-known for selling data to ICE.

We asked the mall operator, Irvine Company, to explain itself, but it refused to answer questions. However, after EFF published its report, Irvine Company told reporters ALPR data was not shared with ICE, but only three local police departments. Then Vigilant Solutions issued a press release saying “the entire premise of the article is false,” and accused EFF of “creating fake news.” Vigilant Solutions also demanded we retract the post and apologize, saying that it was “evaluating potential legal claims” against EFF.

The EFF's reporting has been backed up by emails obtained by the ACLU that show Irvine Company was one of many agencies sharing ALPR data with ICE. It was also sharing it with other law enforcement agencies beyond the three listed in a statement given to the EFF. One of the agencies Irvine Company shared data with was an Orange County fusion center -- a joint anti-terrorism effort headed up by the DHS. The fusion center fed the Vigilant ALPR data to other California law enforcement agencies, along with ICE. The emails show someone at Irvine Company sending PDFs of plate records directly to an ICE agent, violating the confines of its data-sharing agreement and allowing the ICE agent to bypass internal controls on plate data access.

Vigilant continues to deny its data is being handed out to ICE by California law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, Irvine Company has quietly terminated its contract with Vigilant and refuses to discuss its data sharing any further. The EFF has passed this information on to Motorola. Motorola acquired Vigilant earlier this year and may have relied on Vigilant's misrepresentations about its customers and their data sharing when vetting this purchase. When reached for comment by the EFF, Motorola didn't sound too happy about ICE's access to plate records.

We are aware of the ACLU of Northern California's recent report on license plate recognition data and assertions regarding data access by the Irvine Company. The referenced incident predates Motorola Solutions' ownership of Vigilant Solutions, and we are currently working with Vigilant to assess the situation in greater detail.

Motorola Solutions is committed to the highest standard of integrity and data protection, which includes ensuring that vehicle location data is accessed only by authorized law enforcement agencies in accordance with applicable laws and industry standards. We also are committed to working with our customers and partners to ensure that use of vehicle location data hosted in our database is appropriately safeguarded to minimize the potential for misuse by any person.

Motorola may have a $445 million PR nightmare on its hands. Or it may just be happy to be making some money from domestic surveillance equipment. Vigilant also offers facial recognition tech. Given the tech's history, this likely won't be the last time Vigilant is on the receiving end of negative press.

But given the dishonesty of everyone involved, it's time for California's government to step up and start performing some actual oversight. The EFF is calling for an investigation of Vigilant and its law enforcement partners, with an eye on determining the extent of these data-sharing partnerships and their impact on the general public.

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