The Internal Revenue Service and other U.S. agencies awarded about $415,000 in contracts to a license plate-tracking company before Homeland Security leaders dropped a plan for similar work amid privacy complaints.
Federal offices such as the Forest Service and the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command chose Livermore, California-based Vigilant Solutions to provide access to license plate databases or tools used to collect plate information, according to government procurement records compiled by Bloomberg.
Vigilant, a closely held company, has received such work since 2009. In February, Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ordered the cancelation of an immigration agency plan to buy access to national license plate data. While the technology can help solve crimes, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have said the mass collection of data infringes the privacy of innocent people.
“Especially with the IRS, I don’t know why these agencies are getting access to this kind of information,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy-rights group. “These systems treat every single person in an area as if they’re under investigation for a crime -- that is not the way our criminal justice system was set up or the way things work in a democratic society.”
IRS officials awarded the company a $1,188 contract for “access to nationwide data” in June 2012, according to records available online. That contract ended in May 2013, according to federal procurement records.
“The IRS uses a variety of investigative tools similar to other law-enforcement agencies to assist with criminal cases,” Eric Smith, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mail. He declined to say how the IRS used the records in its investigations.
The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, awarded Vigilant a contract valued at as much as $47,019 for its “CarDetector” system in August 2009, records show. The product scans and captures license plate numbers, compares the data to law enforcement lists of wanted vehicles and sends alerts when such vehicles are detected, according to the company’s website.
Forestry officials also awarded the company a contract valued at about $7,500 in August for a subscription to its license plate database and other services, according to contracting records.
“License plate readers are helpful to our law enforcement officers with illegal activities on national forest system lands in California,” Tiffany Holloway, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail. She declined to comment about what types of crimes the tools are used to investigate or provide examples of how the technology has helped law enforcement.
Vigilant provides some data for free to federal and state law enforcement agencies, Brian Shockley, the company’s vice president of marketing, said in an e-mailed statement. The information has been used to “solve crimes and save lives,” he said.
The company has local, state and federal agency customers, he said, declining to comment about its work for the federal government and how it may have supported national security.
Most of the federal contracts were awarded years before former contractor Edward Snowden last year exposed vast U.S. surveillance programs that intercepted the phone records of many Americans. In the aftermath, lawmakers in more than a dozen states weighed legislation this year to limit license-plate tracking, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
The ACLU, which also has pushed for state measures limiting use of the technology, criticized the Homeland Security Department for a February solicitation seeking to buy access to the data. The department’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency had planned to use the records to help locate and arrest “absconders and criminal aliens,” according to a federal document seeking companies’ proposals.
The agency halted the solicitation, saying immigration officials weren’t aware it had been posted.
Federal procurement records show it has awarded contracts valued at as much as $175,000 to Vigilant since 2011. Most are now expired. The other contracts with Vigilant are separate from the February solicitation, Barbara Gonzalez, press secretary for the immigration agency, said in an e-mail.
They provide “limited access to an already-existing database for a defined amount of time and only in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations and to locate wanted individuals,” Gonzalez said.
Even so, concerns about the government’s use of the data remain, said Kade Crockford, a project director with the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“The American public deserves to know the degree to which the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are already tapping into these databases,” Crockford said in a phone interview. “The cancellation of the solicitation itself has no measurable impact on the existing reality, which is that we are all being tracked right now.”
Other federal offices, including the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshals Service, have awarded contracts to Vigilant for access to its records or tracking tools.
The Air Force’s Air Combat Command awarded Vigilant a contract for license plate readers valued at as much as $114,000 in September 2011, according to online federal data. The license plate readers are a “valuable tool” that help make base access “easier and more secure,” said Benjamin Newell, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command.
“The more aware we are of who is entering a military facility, the better we are able to protect the lives and equipment on that base,” Newell said in a phone interview.
NetChoice, a Washington-based trade association that represents e-commerce businesses, is concerned that groups opposing the tools offer “no recognition at all of the benefits of license plate recognition in stopping crime or saving lives,” said Steve DelBianco, its executive director.
Companies that collect the data or sell the technology have strict guidelines about who can obtain records, he said.
“Our governments require us to display a plate on our cars, visible on the front and back in public, for a reason,” DelBianco said in a phone interview. “A lot of the concern is a knee-jerk reaction to Snowden revelations.”