If you drive to the Irvine Spectrum shopping center, Fashion Island or The Marketplace, it’s a sure bet that the Irvine, Newport Beach and/or Tustin Police Departments know about it. That’s because in 2016, The Irvine Company installed Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) at these three shopping centers (click here to read The Irvine Company’s privacy statement on their use of these devices).
ALPRs are straight out of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian world described in Minority Report, and can scan images of thousands of plates every minute. All that info typically goes local police departments, who then use it (in theory) to solve crimes. Given how much information these readers can gather, it’s no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) takes a very dim view of them:
The information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.
But are local police departments the only government agencies collecting all this data? Could Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) be looking at the plates, too?
That’s the conclusion of this July 10 Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) report. According to EFF, it’s The Irvine Company’s contract with surveillance technology vendor Vigilant Solutions that spells trouble:
In December 2017, ICE signed a contract with Vigilant Solutions to access its license-plate reader database. Data from Irvine Company’s malls directly feeds into Vigilant Solutions’ database system, according to the policy. This could mean that ICE can spy on mall visitors without their knowledge and receive near-real-time alerts when a targeted vehicle is spotted in a shopping center’s parking lot.
To be fair, The Irvine Company denies that Vigilant is giving OC license plate data to ICE. “Irvine Company is a customer of Vigilant Solutions,” Irvine Company spokesperson Scott Starkey said in a July 10 response to the EFF story. “Vigilant employs ALPR technology at our three Orange County regional shopping centers. Vigilant is required by contract, and have assured us, that ALPR data collected at these locations is only shared with local police departments as part of their efforts to keep the local community safe.”
Sounds reasonable, right? It’s too bad that ICE–the agency responsible for deporting massive numbers of undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed any crimes and is reportedly pressuring immigrant parents separated from their children to stop seeking asylum in the US–is the antithesis of responsibility.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.