An Unprecedented Threat to Privacy

Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com

A private company has captured 2.2 billion photos of license plates in cities throughout America. It stores them in a database, tagged with the location where they were taken. And it is selling that data.

Throughout the United States—outside private houses, apartment complexes, shopping centers and businesses with large employee parking lots—a private corporation, Vigilant Solutions, is taking photos of cars and trucks with its vast network of unobtrusive cameras. It retains location data on each of those pictures, and sells it.

It’s happening right now in nearly every major American city.

The company has taken roughly 2.2 billion license-plate photos to date. Each month, it captures and permanently stores about 80 million additional geotagged images. They may well have photographed your license plate. As a result, your whereabouts at given moments in the past are permanently stored. Vigilant Solutions profits by selling access to this data (and tries to safeguard it against hackers). Your diminished privacy is their product. And the police are their customers.

The company counts 3,000 law-enforcement agencies among its clients. Thirty thousand police officers have access to its database. Do your local cops participate?

If you’re not sure, that’s typical.

To install a GPS tracking device on your car, your local police department must present a judge with a rationale that meets a Fourth Amendment test and obtain a warrant. But if it wants to query a database to see years of data on where your car was photographed at specific times, it doesn’t need a warrant––just a willingness to send some of your tax dollars to Vigilant Solutions, which insists that license plate readers are “unlike GPS devices, RFID, or other technologies that may be used to track.” Its website states that “LPR is not ubiquitous, and only captures point in time information. And the point in time information is on a vehicle, not an individual.”

But thanks to Vigilant, its competitors, and license plate readers used by police departments themselves, the technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous over time. And Supreme Court jurisprudence on GPS tracking suggests that repeatedly collecting data “at a moment in time” until you’ve built a police database of 2.2 billion such moments is akin to building a mosaic of information so complete and intrusive that it may violate the Constitutional rights of those subject to it.

The company dismisses the notion that advancing technology changes the privacy calculus in kind, not just degree. An executive told The Washington Post that its approach “basically replaces an old analog function—your eyeballs,” adding, “It’s the same thing as a guy holding his head out the window, looking down the block, and writing license-plate numbers down and comparing them against a list. The technology just makes things better and more productive.”

By this logic, Big Brother’s network of cameras and listening devices in 1984 was merely replacing the old analog technologies of eyes and ears in a more efficient manner, and was really no different from sending around a team of alert humans.

The vast scale of Vigilant’s operations is detailed in documents obtained through public-records laws by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“Last year, we learned that the NYPD was hoping to enter into a multi-year contract that would give it access to the nationwide database of license plate reader data,” the civil liberties group announced Monday in a blog post linking to the document. “Now, through a Freedom of Information Law request, the NYCLU has obtained the final version of the $442,500 contract and the scope-of-work proposal that gives a peek into the ever-widening world of surveillance made possible by Vigilant.”

The NYPD has its own license plate tracking program. It nevertheless wanted access to the Vigilant Solutions database as well, “which means,” the NYCLU notes, “the NYPD can now monitor your car whether you live in New York or Miami or Chicago or Los Angeles.” The NYPD has a long history of spying on Muslim Americans far outside its jurisdiction. And both license-plate readers and the information derived from them have already been misused in other jurisdictions.

More abuses seem inevitable as additional communities adopt the technology (some with an attitude expressed with admirable frankness by an official in a small Florida city: “We want to make it impossible for you to enter Riviera Beach without being detected.”)

Washington is accelerating the spread of the technology.

“During the past five years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than $50 million in federal grants to law-enforcement agencies—ranging from sprawling Los Angeles to little Crisp County, Ga., pop. 23,000—for automated license-plate recognition systems,” the Wall Street Journal reports. As one critic, California state Senator Joe Simitian, asked: “Should a cop who thinks you're cute have access to your daily movements for the past 10 years without your knowledge or consent? I think the answer to that question should be 'no.'"

The technology forms part of a larger policing trend toward infringing on the privacy of ordinary citizens.

​“The rise of license-plate tracking is a case study in how storing and studying people's everyday activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “Cellphone-location data, online searches, credit-card purchases, social-network comments and more are gathered, mixed-and-matched, and stored. Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Fifteen years ago, more than half of these surveillance tools were unavailable or not in widespread use.”

Nor are police the only ones buying this data.

Vigilant Solutions is a subsidiary of a company called Digital Recognition Network.

Its website declares:

All roads lead to revenue with DRN’s license plate recognition technology. Fortune 1000 financial institutions rely on DRN solutions to drive decisions about loan origination, servicing, and collections. Insurance providers turn DRN’s solutions and data into insights to mitigate risk and investigate fraud. And, our vehicle location data transforms automotive recovery processes, substantially increasing portfolio returns.

And its general counsel insists that “everyone has a First Amendment right to take these photographs and disseminate this information.” But as the ACLU points out:

2011 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Policenoted that individuals may become “more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation” due to license plate readers. It continues: “Recording driving habits could implicate First Amendment concerns. Specifically, LPR systems have the ability to record vehicles’ attendance at locations or events that, although lawful and public, may be considered private. For example, mobile LPR units could read and collect the license plate numbers of vehicles parked at addiction counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”

Many powerful interests are aligned in wanting to know where the cars of individuals are parked. Unable to legally install tracking devices themselves, they pay for the next best alternative—and it’s gradually becoming a functional equivalent. More laws might be passed to stymie this trend if more Americans knew that private corporations and police agencies conspire to keep records of their whereabouts.

Spread the word.

(Image via /Shutterstock.com)

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