As police agencies across the United States adopt license plate readers in rapidly growing numbers, the private companies involved in the industry are making their profits at the nightmarish cost of the public’s privacy.
The use of license plate readers, or LPRs, has skyrocketed in recent years, with hundreds of police departments from coast-to-coast acquiring these state-of-the-art systems lately that can shoot hundreds of images of car tags a minute and then match that information with constantly growing databases containing automobiles of interest.
Law enforcement officers use LPRs to check for stolen cars in some cities, and reposition agencies elsewhere rely on the systems to see what cars can be collected for a bounty. In some locales, police officials have even credited the technology with helping to catch violent criminals by scouring vast databases for license plate images shot by any LPR camera at the agency’s disposal and attempting to pinpoint what car was near a crime scene when it happened and then learning more about that suspicious automobile. According to the Law Officer policing website, the technology has been used “to solve literally hundreds of thousands of crimes across the country.”
With data retention laws often absent and oversight all too lax, however, privacy advocates are warning that the private companies that sell LPR systems and administer their associated databases are able to do much more than just help officers locate cars and issue arrests.
The expanding but highly unchecked use of LPRs was the subject of a widely-circulated American Civil Liberties Union report earlier this year, “You Are Being Tracked,” which spawned a number of news articles and helped raise awareness of what exactly the systems are capable of doing. An analysis of one of the industry’s top players by the bloggers at PrivacySOS.com this week is raising new questions about the capabilities of such systems, though.
“Our worst nightmare with respect to automatic license plate readers is quickly becoming a reality,” one of the bloggers wrote on Tuesday. “Federal, state and local law enforcement appear to agree with the NSA's 'collect it all' mentality when it comes to tracking the movements of innocent motorists. And a video produced by a corporation that is making lots of money off of the destruction of our privacy shows just how that data can be used against us.”
Indeed, the blog linked to a YouTube video uploaded earlier this
year by LPR company Vigilant Solutions that shows just how
prevalent the technology is becoming and the extensive abilities
it affords investigators as a result.
The video in question is one of many made by Vigilant Solutions in which the company explains just how its tools can be used to track down suspects. As PrivacySOS noted, however, the possibilities of how these products could be used are seemingly endless as more LPR cameras are installed around the country and millions upon millions of logs are being recorded on a regular basis documenting where and when countless cars have been.
In the YouTube clip, a narrator walks through a sample scenario in which an investigator relies on Vigilant Solution’s LEARN (Law Enforcement Archival & Reporting Network) system to see four separate crime scenes within a city that are thought to be linked. A police officer with access to LEARN can load up the application and type in certain addresses and then see the license plates of any car caught on camera within a certain radius and timeframe. By scouring for car details near all four crime scenes, investigators can see if a common vehicle was in the vicinity for more than one incident and then inquire further for information about that automobile or its registered owner.
According to a statement made by Vigilant Solutions earlier this month, the company has over one billion logs in its system of license plates caught by LPR cameras capable of capturing data on thousands of automobiles each day. With the right access, any individual with LEARN or a similar system at their disposable can scour this data to see where and when a specific automobile traveled over time. But as the ACLU adamantly noted throughout its report earlier this year, many jurisdictions have no retention policy in place, allowing private companies like Vigilant Solutions and their law enforcement associates to indefinitely expand the amount of information in their networks. In Jersey City, New Jersey, for example, police have gathered over 10 million license plate records in a town of only 250,000 residents because they can keep images on file for five years. In Milpitas, California, no law whatsoever limits how long officials there can keep records detailing the driving history of the city’s roughly one million residents, not to mention anyone else who may be passing through.
"You could have a nationwide vision of where I was at a given time," Mary Ellen Callahan, the former chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year in an article by Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-Devries about LPRs.
And as PrivacySOS noted, that information could be used for more than just law enforcement. Citing the specific LEARN video uploaded by Vigilant Solutions, the blogger admits, “The scenario described in the video pertains to a fictional homicide investigation, but there's no reason the same kind of investigative technique couldn't be used to look into antiwar protesters, journalists who are asking difficult questions of a police chief or nosy city council members.”
“As you can see, the fictional officer wasn't required to enter a reason, provide any legal justification, nor even make reference to an investigation file before he was able to query the database and use analytic tools to decipher it,” the blog post continues. “When it comes to license plate tracking in the United States today, just about anything goes.”
Fortunately for the companies investing in LPRs, they can use that same mentality to make millions by selling access to the information it collects. In the WSJ article from earlier this year, the paper profiled Mike Griffin, an auto repossession agent from Baltimore, Maryland who relies on a fleet of camera-equipped cars to collect roughly a million plates a month, the likes of which are then matched against a private database administered by MVTrac, Vigilant Solution’s top competitor. Griffin and his crew has managed to amass a database on their own of 19 million historical locations of vehicles just within the greater Baltimore area, the Journal reported, and while his company lets police see that information for free, he sees no problem with selling that intelligence to others.
"In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering," he told the paper, adding that he has plans to soon put that information into the hands of bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators and insurers — and all for a price.
Meanwhile, the affordability of LPRs and the declining cost of storing associated images are allowing those databases to expand rapidly in size, with MVTrac boasting ownership of photos and location data on “a large majority” of registered vehicles in the US. According to the ACLU, similar databases have been expanding each month to the tune of 35 to 50 million new LPR records.