A data-collection firm is calling claims that it was sharing licence plate information with US immigration officials 'pure fiction'

  • Irvine Company, a real-estate giant that runs 46 shopping centres in California, is reportedly sharing licence plate information with a surveillance technology company that in turn provides access to that data to the US Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agency.
  • According to a privacy watchdog group, Vigilant Solutions signed a contract to give ICE access to licence plate database, sparking privacy concerns.
  • Vigilant Solutions provides the same services to various law-enforcement agencies, insurance companies, debt collectors.
  • Vigilant Solutions said it was not sharing vehicle data from Irvine Company’s malls with ICE, and called the claim “patently false.”
  • Privacy groups have been critical of licence plate databases and have described it as “a form of mass surveillance.”
  • Some cities have rejected Vigilant Solutions’s services outright due to it’s affiliation with ICE and its controversial enforcement policies for undocumented immigrants.

A real estate development company that operates shopping malls throughout California is reportedly sharing licence plate information with a surveillance technology company that in turn provides access to that data to the US Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Irvine Company, which runs 46 shopping centres in California, said it employs the services of surveillance company Vigilant Solutions, which claims to use automatic licence plate readers (ALPR) to “keep the local community safe,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital privacy watchdog.

On Wednesday, Irvine Company disclosed the names of three Southern California shopping centres where licence plate data was being collected: the Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, and The Marketplace in Tustin. All of those shopping centres are located in Orange County.

However, Vigilant Solutions said it was not sharing vehicle data with ICE and called the claim “patently false.”

“Vigilant Solutions and Irvine Company do not share the Automated Licence Plate Reader (ALPR) data gathered at malls with ICE,” a company statement said. “As Irvine Company has stated, it is shared with select law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of mall patrons.”

The company added that it was considering taking legal action against the EFF for “its false and misleading article.”

Vigilant Solutions provides ALPR data to various law-enforcement agencies, insurance companies, debt collectors. In 2016, it collected 2.2 billion licence plate photos and was contracted to around 3,000 law enforcement agencies, according to The Atlantic.

Privacy groups have been critical of ALPR and have described it as “a form of mass surveillance.”

According to the EFF, the relationship between Vigilant Solutions and businesses like Irvine Company “allows the government to examine the travel patterns of consumers on private property with little transparency and no consent from those being tracked.”

But law-enforcement groups defended the technology, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a non-profit law enforcement group.

The IACP asserts some of the benefits of the system are:

  • Locating stolen vehicles.
  • Finding suspects in relation to criminal investigations or arrest warrants.
  • Identifying witnesses or victims.
  • Searching for missing children, elderly people, or other missing persons through AMBER and Silver alerts.

Advocates of the ALPR say they are confident that the collected data was shared only with authorised personnel.

“The ALPR camera does not identify any individual or access their personal information through its analysis of licence plate numbers,” the IACP said on their website.

“The data captured by the ALPR unit itself is completely anonymous,” the IACP’s website said. “There is no personally identifiable information contained in an ALPR record and the operator can only determine the registered owner of a vehicle by querying a separate, secure state government database of vehicle licence plate records, which is restricted, controlled, and audited.”

Some municipalities have rejected Vigilant Solutions’ services outright due to it’s affiliation with ICE and its controversial enforcement policies for undocumented immigrants. In February, the city of Alameda, California rejected a $US500,000 contract with Vigilant Solutions.

“Even my colleagues who were very clearly in support of licence plate readers still didn’t like the idea of contracting with Vigilant,” Vice Mayor Malia Vella said in The Verge. “It’s a problem how they share this information.”

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