IRVINE — For nearly two years, the Irvine Co. has been quietly sharing information from automated license plate readers at three Orange County 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 firms 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.
Vigilant said neither it nor the Irvine Co. share license plate data from shopping centers with ICE.
“As Irvine Company has stated, it is shared with select law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of mall patrons,” Vigilant said in a statement.
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.
ICE only uses data obtained from license plate readers in criminal and civil investigations, according to Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for the agency.
“ICE is not seeking to build a license plate reader database, and will not collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database,” Bourke said in a statement.
He added that ICE has the “most stringent requirements known to have been applied for the use of this technology.”
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 vehicles 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 persons 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.
Vigilant has sharing agreements with about 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, including sheriffs departments in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties, EFF estimates.
Vigilants contract with ICE has drawn criticism and protests by activists who fear the database could be used to track illegal immigrants, violating Californias 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.”
Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Vigilant and ICE.