Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Police depts sworn to secrecy are using license plate readers to spy on us -

Police depts sworn to secrecy are using license plate readers to spy on us - 

Vigilant Solutions, founded in 2009, claims to have the nation’s largest repository of license-plate images with nearly 2 billion records stored in its National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS). Despite the enormous implications of the database for the public, any law enforcement agency that signs up for the service is sworn to a vow of silence by the company’s terms of service.

Vigilant is clear about the reason for the secrecy: it’s to prevent customers from “cooperating” with media and calling attention to its database.

That database is used by law enforcement and others to track stolen cars or vehicles used in crimes, as well as to locate illegal immigrants, kidnapping victims and others — though the vast majority of license plates stored belong to ordinary drivers who aren’t suspected of a crime.

The agreement law enforcement signs, which was uncovered by the EFF, reads in part:
You shall not create, publish, distribute, or permit any written, electronically transmitted or other form of publicity material that makes reference to LEARN or this Agreement without first submitting the material to LEARN-NVLS and receiving written consent from LEARN-NVLS. This prohibition is specifically intended to prohibit users from cooperating with any media outlet to bring attention to LEARN or LEARN-NVLS. Breach this provision may result in LEARN-NVLS immediately termination of this Agreement upon notice to you.
LEARN stands for Law Enforcement Archival and Reporting Network and is Vigilant’s online portal where license plate data and images are aggregated and analyzed for law enforcement to access.

“LEARN provides agencies with an easy way to manage users and vehicle hotlists, query historical license plate reader (LPR) data and used advanced analytics for enhanced investigations,” the company’s web site says.

Vigilant’s prohibition recalls a similar, even more restrictive prohibition, by the Harris Corporation, whose non-disclosure agreement with law enforcement agencies prohibits them from disclosing to the media or even other government bodies their use of a cell-phone spy tool that Harris makes, known as a stingray.

The Harris prohibition has resulted in law enforcement agencies using the stingrays without obtaining a court warrant, because the agencies have interpreted the contract to mean they cannot even tell a judge about their intent to use the devices.

But it appears that Vigilant’s prohibition is just an attempt to control the company’s image and prevent anyone from talking about its database other than Vigilant. A Vigilant official was quoted in a recent Washington Post story about license plate databases.

The Post reported on a proposal by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to contract with a private company to produce and manage a national license-plate tracking system containing data collected from every license plate scanned by plate readers around the country.

The database would aggregate license plate data captured by readers owned by law ­enforcement agencies, border-crossing cameras and toll booths, as well as by commercial repo-men, who are one of the primary creators and users of license plate images. The latter use vehicles equipped with license plate recognition systems to trawl through streets and parking lots to grab images of plates and cars.

Civil liberties groups criticized the proposal, however, since it would allow authorities to conduct bulk surveillance against millions of drivers and track their location and movement.

DHS subsequently withdrew the proposal. 

You can bet DHS/NSA have access to this huge database.

Despite DHS’s change in plans, however, license plate databases like Vigilant’s continue to exist and thrive. Though Vigilant would prefer you not talk about it.

Private companies were quietly and rapidly finding ways to profit from much larger databases with little public discussion. Digital Recognition Network, with the help of about 400 repossession companies across the United States, has increased the number of ­license scans in its database tenfold since September 2010, and the firm continues to add another 70 million scans per month, according to company disclosures. Digital Recognition’s top rival, Illinois-based MVTRAC, has not disclosed the size of its database, but claimed in a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview to have scans of “a large majority” of vehicles registered in the United States.

Unlike law enforcement agencies, which often have policies to purge their computers of license records after a certain period of time, the data brokers are under no such obligation, meaning their databases grow and gain value over time as a way to track individuals’ movements and whereabouts.

It's worse than most Americans believe, check out this story from Virginia: 

The police know exactly where my car has been — and when — during the past few months.

They could have the same information — or more — about you.

As a part of my series on the use of automatic license plate readers in Virginia, I wanted to find out what kind of information local police might have. By law, the only information I’m privileged to is my own.

Last week I filed a public records request with the Alexandria Police Department. I’ve lived in the lovely city of Alexandria for just two years, and my driving record — aside from the occasional parking ticket — is virtually spotless.

What I found, however, left me riveted.

In all, police captured 16 photos of my car — mostly at night — and recorded my license plate eight times on five dates — from October 2013 to as recently as April 1.

The top-of-the-line ALPR technology allows local police departments like Alexandria’s to capture up to 1,800 license plates per minute, even of cars going up to 160 mph. Police can check license plate data to match one vehicle’s moves, or against things such as DMV records.

That’s exactly why civil rights advocates such as John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, said the widespread collection and preservation of license plate data not only potentially violates search and seizure rights in the Fourth Amendment, but it also makes people leery to exercise their First Amendment rights.


No comments:

Post a Comment