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Southern California Shopping Centers Say they Provide License Plate Reader Data to Police, but not ICE

Despite the Irvine Co. not directly sharing personal data with ICE, the federal agency still might be able to obtain it through other sources that partner with Vigilant.

(TNS) — IRVINE, CALIF. — For nearly two years, the Irvine Co. has been quietly sharing information from automated license plate readers at three Orange County, Calif., shopping centers with a surveillance technology vendor that sells data to Immigration & Customs Enforcement, raising privacy concerns from civil libertarians.

Irvine Co. spokesman Scott Starkey said Wednesday the firm’s contract with Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions allows data collection at Irvine Spectrum Center, Fashion Island in Newport Beach and The Market Place in Tustin.

Vigilant is permitted to share the data it collects with Irvine, Tustin and Newport Beach police departments, but not ICE, Starkey said.

“We have been assured through conversations with Vigilant that only those police departments are receiving information,” he added.

Irvine Co. owns 46 shopping centers in Southern California, but only the three Orange County centers use the Vigilant systems.

The revelation that Irvine Co. provides license plate data to Vigilant is troubling, said Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“It demonstrates how pervasive surveillance apparatus is in everyday life and how easy it is for government to access sensitive material about us,” Tajsar said. “Folks should be concerned because they could be ensnared in the immigration system by simply going to a shopping mall.”

Even if the Irvine Co. is not directly sharing information with ICE, the federal agency still may be obtaining it from other law enforcement sources that partner with Vigilant, according to Tajsar.

The existence of the agreement outlined in a privacy disclosure on the Irvine Co.’s website was uncovered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at guarding civil liberties in the digital world.

Automated license plate recognition cameras capture images of license plates, convert the plate into plain-text characters, and append a time, date and GPS location, according to an EFF report.

This data usually is fed into a database, allowing the operator to search for a particular vehicle’s travel patterns or identify visitors to a particular location, the report says.

By adding certain vehicles to a “hot list,” an operator can receive near-real time alerts on a person’s whereabouts, according to EFF.

A Jan. 31 email obtained by the Southern California News Group from Vigilant to the Woodland Police Department seems to confirm the company has a contract with ICE.

Officials with ICE and Vigilant did not respond to requests for comment about the contract.

Vigilant has sharing agreements with about 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, including sheriff’s departments in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties, EFF estimates.

Vigilant’s contract with ICE has drawn criticism and protests by activists who fear the database could be used to track illegal immigrants, violating California’s sanctuary state laws.

“There are many vibrant immigrant communities in Southern California,” Tajsar said. “We always knew that license plate-sharing technology was out there, but this from the Irvine Company is the most in-your-face example of why we are concerned.”

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.