The fact that license-plate scanners are not just installed on police cars, but are collecting data along roadsides across the United States may be shocking news to some, but the real bombshell, according to civil libertarians, is how the collected data is being shared.
Police departments in eight Connecticut locations have been identified as sharing motorists’ location information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut to call for an immediate stop to the activity.
The eight police departments include Fairfield, Westport, Enfield, Wethersfield, Stratford, Trumbull, Norwalk and Southern Connecticut State University police, who were all identified as tracking daily movements of residents via license-plate scanners and sharing information with ICE for a national surveillance database.
Attorney David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, condemned the practice Wednesday, calling for an immediate end to the information sharing with what he called a “rogue and immoral agency.” He added that the state Legislature must ensure civil-liberties protections, particularly as Connecticut considers the establishment of automated highway tolls.
McGuire said the ACLU is not challenging the license-plate scanning technology or its use, but more specifically the sharing of metadata that it’s used to collect. “How it’s shared creates a huge privacy issue, and it’s even more troublesome for vulnerable groups,” he said. The ACLU has thus far unsuccessfully lobbied for national legislation that would place limits on data shared by local police departments with ICE, along with the length of time the data is stored. “Many police departments have no retention limits at all,” McGuire said, noting that he obtained data on his own movements through a freedom of information request. “I found that I was scanned at work several times, and at a bar I went to in Enfield. It’s really precise location information, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of storage to save these things indefinitely.”
Southern Connecticut State University alumnus Jonathan Gonzalez, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Connecticut, said he was appalled and frightened to hear the police department at his alma mater was participating in the data-sharing practice. “When I noticed the SCSU police department was cooperating with ICE, I felt a sense of betrayal,” he said. “As a student, I felt I could rely on the police on any issue if I needed to come forward to them, but if I was a student there now, I would be afraid to drive through campus.”
In addition to police cars, license-plate readers are mounted at toll booths and other locations employing small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. The data includes the date, time, and location of each scan.
The situation hits close to home for Gonzalez, whose own status is currently undocumented and whose father was pulled over by local police for a minor traffic violation, turned over to ICE and ultimately deported. Studying under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Gonzalez serves as coordinator for the immigration rights group Connecticut Students for a Dream.
Gonzalez said that while he understands laws need to be followed, he also believes the morality of some laws needs to be challenged. “I do feel like feel I’m living under a threat,” he said. “I always feel that undocumented residents are held to a higher standard, and when an undocumented person commits a misdemeanor crime, it often gets blown out of proportion, with people thinking all undocumented people are criminals, when that’s not the case.” Gonzalez called it “particularly ironic” that Southern Connecticut is participating in the data-sharing program when the school has its own Social Justice Month each November. “A college can’t prioritize social justice if it is helping ICE separate families and target students,” he said.
The ACLU said the eight Connecticut police departments identified are among more than 80 nationwide that are participating in data sharing with ICE. McGuire said the organization is calling for local police departments to immediately cease participation. “It’s a huge issue for everyone. They can find out where you pray, or whether you go to a substance-abuse support group. We don’t take issue with the way it was originally intended—for instance, if someone has an invalid registration or stolen car—but the information should not be kept indefinitely to share or sell to whoever they want. So we’re working with legislators and the governor’s office to put some real regulations in place.” One such initiative is Senate Bill 992, a measure that would strengthen Connecticut’s TRUST Act by requiring a valid federal warrant before local law enforcement officials cooperate with ICE detainers.
“The law is clear: if ICE wishes to detain or deport someone, it can expend its own resources and time doing so,” the ACLU notes in its online summary of the bill. “Local and state law enforcement are under no obligation to assist with this process. Local and state police do not need to arrest, transport, or detain people for ICE, nor do local jails, courthouses, or prisons need to allow ICE to roam their facilities.”
Mary Elizabeth Smith of Make the Road CT said the data-sharing practice strikes fear into the community. “We already know how ICE is a rogue agency that is chasing people at courthouses and detaining people for traffic tickets, but this is a whole other level,” she said. “The only reason for ICE to want this information to strike fear in the hearts of our community, and we won’t stand for it.”
The ICE office in Washington, D.C., responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement. “ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader database, and will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract,” the agency stated. “ICE 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 against other investigative information, including information from government systems, before taking any action against the individual.”
Data-collection documents were obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in May 2018. The records show more than 9,000 ICE agents have access to an automated license-plate reader database with 5 billion points of location information run by the company Vigilant Solutions under a $6.1 million contract made public last year. ICE’s access was not made public until this week.
The ACLU of Connecticut called on law enforcement to stop sharing residents’ location data with ICE and for the Connecticut General Assembly to pass bills to take control over police surveillance and strengthen the state’s TRUST Act.
Southern Connecticut State University Police Chief Joseph M. Dooley did not respond to a request for comment.