- Customs and Border Protection has paid tens of thousands of dollars for access to a private company’s network of security cameras that spans the US, according to federal procurement records.
- The camera network, owned by a company called Vigilant, monitors roads and highways for licence plates and sends automatic alerts for the location of specific vehicles.
- It’s part of a broader pattern of CBP buying access to personal data collected by private companies, sidestepping the need for warrants and evading public scrutiny.
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Customs and Border Protection bought access to a vast surveillance network owned and operated by a private company that grants the agency insight into people’s movements across the US, federal procurement records show.
CBP has spent tens of thousands of dollars for access to LEARN, a system sold by a commercial vendor called Vigilant that uses hundreds of cameras across the US to monitor highways and automatically alert authorities when specific licence plates drive by. Most recently, CBP spent $US60,990 for access to the technology through a contract signed on August 24, according to public records.
The practice shines light on a growing trend: Rather than collecting information through their own channels, which could be subject to public scrutiny, federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly purchasing data from private brokers. CBP spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earlier this year on phone location data collected by private firms.
CBP’s August contract isn’t the first time it’s paid for access to Vigilant’s LEARN database. Motherboard reported this week on a contract the agency signed with Vigilant in 2015 for “unlimited” access to alerts from the database. According to that contract, Vigilant’s coverage already spanned most of the US at the time.
A CBP spokesperson did not immediately comment. Vigilant did not respond to a request for comment.
Vigilant collects licence plate data through its sister company, DRN, which pays contractors with vehicle-mounted cameras that automatically photograph other cars on major highways, according to the documents published by Motherboard. The database now consists of over 9 billion licence plate scans.
Buying personal data from private companies allows agencies like CBP to sidestep the need for a search warrant, and shields the data collection practices themselves from public records requests. CBP previously collected licence plate data using its own cameras, but ended that practice in 2017 in favour of buying commercial firms’ data, according to a memo published in July.
Further muddying the process of data collection is the fact that federal agencies often buy data through subcontracts with third parties, rather than purchasing directly from the data brokers themselves. CBP’s most recent purchase of LEARN data was made as part of its contract with Thundercat Technology, a separate firm that aggregates data from sources including Vigilant.
Thundercat Technology did not immediately respond to a request for comment.