Database inadvertently shared data with ICE

Victoria BresnahanNews Editor & Tamonda GriffithsNews Writer

The Southern University Police Department has been linked to inadvertently providing license plate recognition data to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement through a cloud-based online database.

Patrick Dilger, director of Integrated Communications & Marketing, said, in a telephone interview, the university disabled the sharing function of the database, Vigilant Solutions, once the linkage was discovered.

“The university has never directly shared information with ICE,” stated President Joe Bertolino, in a campus announcement email, “nor are we aware of any instance in which information about members of the campus community has been accessed or used by the federal agency.”

According to a Vigilant Solutions, data sharing report—created on Nov. 7, 2018—ICE was receiving “detection data” from the university, as well as other police departments such as Fairfield, Trumbull and Norwalk.

According to University Police Chief Joseph Dooley, the department started to utilize Vigilant Solutions’ database in June 2018.

When the department agreed to share information with ICE, Dooley said it was because the agency was bundled in with others, similar to that of a social media mass friend request.

The department, Dooley said, became aware it was inadvertently sharing information with ICE, the same day the New Haven Register originally published its story concerning the database. That same evening, he said the department disabled the database’s sharing function.

The database, Dooley said, is “about plates, not people.” It provides a date, a time, a picture and a location of the car. He said the database has helped the department be more proactive in various incidents of theft, domestic violence or AMBER alerts.

The police department, Dooley said, does not work in a vacuum and instead collaborates with the New Haven and Hamden police departments.

“We’re fortunate to have the technology,” said Dooley, “and I saw it as a significant – you know, I’m going to call it a tool in our toolbox.”

Dooley said he understands the concerns and sensitivities where ICE is involved.

Bertolino stated in the email that the nationwide database was used for gathering data on license-plate surveillance, drug and violent crime investigations, locating stolen vehicles and violations of restraining orders.

In September 2017, Bertolino stated in a campus announcement email, protocols were enacted in the event a federal immigration officer came to the university seeking information or undocumented student.

Jonathon Gonzalez, alumnus and Connecticut Students for a Dream Policy Coordinator, said, in a telephone interview, the university’s actions could be allegedly breaking the protocols established to protect undocumented students.

“It’s really appalling to think that you could be putting yourself at risk if you [are pursuing] higher education,” said Gonzalez.

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, stated in an emailed statement, it beneficial is the university has ceased sharing data via the database and affirmed to protecting immigrants’ rights.

“The fact that the university seemed surprised to learn its police department was sharing information with ICE, however, is alarming and raises additional concerning questions,” stated McGuire. “Does the university’s police department understand how Vigilant’s technology works? Was information being taken from them without their knowledge? The university should answer these questions, and/or ask Vigilant and ICE as to how they ended up on that list. They have a duty to the university community to find out exactly what was going on.”

He stated the university’s response highlights why state laws are needed to protect privacy and immigrants’ rights.

“Unfortunately, we were part of a large article to make it seem like we were doing something wrong and that’s not what we do, quite frankly we stand for keeping a safe environment,” said Dooley.

Co-chair of the SCSU Undocumented Student Support Team, Esteban Garcia, said, “I know we’ve been very committed in supporting all of the students in the university [and it] has policy of not releasing any information to immigration authorities, so we were very surprised to find out that indirectly we might have been putting, you know information out there.”

Garcia said no information was leaked, however, as a precaution, he thought it best the university disabled the sharing capabilities.

Whether or not a student is an undocumented or not, Garcia said the university does not keep track of nor identify those students.

“Even if we were asked to provide a list of undocumented students or immigrants students,” said Garcia, “we wouldn’t be able to provide that list.”

Photo Credit: August Pelliccio

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