A must-read article in the Atlantic describes yet another surveillance state advance that it was not hard to see coming: large-scale logging of time and location stamped license plate data, retained over years.
The company behind it, ominously called Vigilant Solutions, sells the information both to private parties and to law enforcement organizations. From the story:
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….
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.
The article stresses that this form of surveillance may not be kosher, in that the ability to put together a person’s movements over time is not just a difference in degree, but a difference in kind, from the idea that you have no presumption of privacy (and therefore protection from being photographed) when you are in public. And Vigilant and their ilk also argue that they are not tracking individuals but vehicles, as if the two are not the same in a high percentage of cases. But the bigger issue, which the article does not address explicitly, is that even if this sort of snooping is not legal (or at a minimum, not usable as evidence), it’s well on its way to being so well established as to be difficult to stop.
The Federal governments is supporting more license plate spying. Again from the story:
“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, Georgia, population 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.’”
Experts point out how the information can and almost certainly will be used to detect and punish behavior deemed transgressive:
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:
A 2011 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted 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.
And a contact who knows the private equity world pointed out (emphasis mine):
Morgan Stanley’s PE arm lists this company as an investment, which is a good example of how enmeshed PE has become in the security/intelligence state. The spooks, I am sure, love the secrecy of PE compared to public markets. And the love goes both ways, as it is my experience that PE people love the spooks because returns are able to be generated by influence peddling behind closed doors, and also because they just find them intellectually interesting.
In other words, proprietary opposition research, which is often hard to distinguish from blackmail.
Please circulate this article more widely. And consider environmentally-friendly transit options, like ride sharing and public transportation, as ways to help impede this effort.
Update 7:20 AM: Resilc provided a Boing Boing story, Vehicle surveillance company’s “free” deal turns Texas cops into bill-collectors, that describes other nefarious uses. Key sections:
Vigilant Solutions is “one of the country’s largest brokers of vehicle surveillance technology” and they’ve got a great deal for Texas police forces: install our license-readers and we’ll alert you every time someone with an overdue fine drives through your town. You pull them over and offer them a trip to jail or immediate payment, using our credit-card machines, for which we charge a 25% “fee” which goes straight into our pockets.
It’s “revenue neutral” — what could possibly go wrong?
Nothing you’ll ever learn about, anyway: agencies that take the deal have to sign a contract with a “non-disparagement clause” that binds them never to discuss the company’s failings. The company, meantime, gets to retain the town’s license-plate data for as long as it’s “commercially useful.”
Oh, and sometimes Vigilant makes mistakes and sends the police after people with no outstanding fines.
Read the rest. Boing Boing questions the legality of the big cut Vigilant Solutions is taking.