ICE can now track anyone’s car in almost real-time

The system raises serious questions about civil liberties, not just for undocumented immigrants but for all Americans.

A rear camera mounted on the back of a Chelsea, Massachusetts police cruiser that can automatically read license plates. CREDIT Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A rear camera mounted on the back of a Chelsea, Massachusetts police cruiser that can automatically read license plates. CREDIT Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) now has access to a vast nationwide vehicle license plate registry database, according to reporting by The Verge.

ICE awarded the contract in December and finalized it two weeks ago. The agreement means the agency can now track millions of license plates, using billions of real-time photographic and location records.

This is another way for the Trump administration to target and pursue undocumented immigrants, who already face constant scrutiny. It also threatens civil liberties for all citizens by giving a federal agency yet another tool to track anyone it wants.

Under the system, ICE agents can query a database of around 100 million sightings per month, tagged by date, time, GPS coordinates, and often a photo. This information can be used for a historical picture of a given vehicle, showing where it has been over the previous five years. Agents can also set up instantaneous alerts for a predetermined list of targets, so that when a new record is created, agents know exactly where the vehicle is at any given time.


“Like most other law enforcement agencies, ICE uses information obtained from license plate readers as one tool in support of its investigations,” ICE spokesperson Dani Bennett told The Verge in a statement. The agency said the source of the data is Vigilant Solutions, which is the largest network for license plate data in the country. It pulls data from police cameras and other private license plate cameras, such as those used by vehicle repossession companies. ICE will not contribute its own license plate data to the system, according to the contract: “ICE is neither seeking to build nor contribute to a national public or private LPR database.”

According to the federal budget tracking website GovTribe, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has outlaid $525,000 for the contract, with a ceiling of over $6 million through 2020.

As with any law enforcement tool, its mere existence does not immediately connote abuse or civil rights violations, but a system like this would give an administration obsessed with halting and reversing immigration of both documented and undocumented people unprecedented ability to track down nearly anyone it wanted. It also brings associated concerns for public safety and privacy rights most people take for granted.

Already, DHS uses thousands of sensors, including license plate readers at the southern border with Mexico. And as far back as 2012, ICE has tested the use of a license plate database to locate fugitives. It has also advocated a broader database system, although the last DHS secretary, Jeh Johnson, cancelled contracts that would do that in 2014.

Under the Obama administration, overall deportation numbers increased. The vast majority of cases from the interior of the country were people who had committed serious offenses, based on that administration’s stated priority to deport chiefly violent offenders. However, this priority changed under the Trump administration, as non-criminal arrests of undocumented immigrants soared by 42 percent.


Fear of tracking under this system would, according to research, encourage more people to avoid registering their cars and learning to safely drive, which is a public safety hazard.