License Plate Reader Company Says Public Records Requests For ALPR Documents Are Just Clickbait

from the price-of-freedom-is-eternal-Vigilant-open-letters dept

It turns out the most oppressed demographic in this country is the one with power, guns, unions, extra rights, and plenty of civil immunity. Law enforcement agencies around the country currently besieged by public records requests are having their fears assuaged and brows unfurrowed by the nation’s largest provider of automatic license plate reader technology.

Earlier this year, the EFF and public records clearinghouse MuckRock joined forces to file approximately 1,000 public records requests with agencies partnering with Vigilant. Apparently this influx of up to one additional records request per agency has pushed law enforcement to its limits. Vigilant Solutions has stepped up to let law enforcement officers know it has their back during this ongoing national nightmare. (h/t Dave Maass, Camille Fassett)

Dear Vigilant Solutions Customer,

We know you are experiencing an onslaught of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Public Records Act (PRA) requests from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and MuckRock regarding your use of our license plate reader (LPR) technology. We write this letter to let you know, quite simply, we support you and are here for you.

Just to be clear, this “onslaught” is composed of one request per law enforcement agency. There’s no point in doubling up on requests since that would just waste time and resources. There may be some inadvertent double filings, but that would only mean some agencies have seen more than one request for Vigilant documents. In no case are any agencies being targeted with mass duplicated requests. So, this “onslaught” might be cumulative in total, but it basically comes down to a 1/1 ratio of requests/agencies.

From there, Vigilant’s letter [PDF] devolves into talking points about the great law enforcement work being done with its passive collection systems. It highlights a handful of nonspecific success stories — stories it claims the EFF and MuckRock ignore — as justification for 24/7 gathering of license plate/location data. Again, this poor attempt to slam both entities as anti-law enforcement fails. No one disputes ALPRs help catch criminals. The problem is they’re often put into place with zero public comment, zero discussion by public officials, zero guidelines for data gathering and retention, and with an eye on law enforcement efficiency above everything else.

The letter tries to mock EFF as being noble fools for pointing out how many agencies have access to Vigilant plate data.

The EFF has noted that California agencies are sharing with the U.S. Forest Service, universities on the East Coast, and airports in Tennessee. EFF is apparently unaware that criminals travel across state lines. Perhaps these writers have not read the countless stories about crimes committed on college campuses, at airports and even in National Parks.

This willfully ignores the reason the EFF points out the long list of agencies with access to data. It’s not that the EFF doesn’t know suspected criminals move around the country or that criminal acts can occur anywhere. It’s that hundreds of agencies are dipping into this data without clear, concise guidance on what they can access and how they can use it. For some agencies not tasked with law enforcement, it’s unclear why they’re even able to pull data from a database supposedly created for law enforcement use only.

But the most ridiculous part of the letter is its ending, in which Vigilant claims the EFF and MuckRock are doing this for the clicks.

The real impetus behind this campaign is so EFF and MuckRock can capitalize on the most well-known emotional trigger for fundraising: Fear. Their aim is to paint a false picture of sharing LPR data by leading their readers to believe it is reckless, unrestricted and used to track individuals. In short, they are attempting to scare individuals into hitting one of the countless “Contribute” and “Donate” buttons on their website.

Wow. Way to stick it to a couple of nonprofits, Vigilant. The “doing it for money/eyeballs/ad revenue/etc.” argument is a full-throated admission you can’t find anything legitimate to complain about. Vigilant sure seems defensive for an entity that believes it’s nothing but a net gain for public safety. This letter is hilarious — an admission Vigilant can be put on the defensive by a steady trickle of public records requests from around the nation.

It’s also kind of hypocritical. Vigilant has brought lawsuits against states claiming their anti-ALPR laws violated the company’s First Amendment right to collect license plate photographs en masse. Now, it’s reaching out to law enforcement agencies to let them know Vigilant will be there for them while citizens exercise their First Amendment rights by requesting a much smaller quantity of public records. This open letter of Vigilant’s is terrible optics. Either it shows Vigilant can be put on the defensive by people seeking information about its products, or it believes law enforcement officers are feeling threatened by the incremental increase in FOIA paperwork. Either way, it’s a terrible look and a terrible response.

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Companies: eff, muckrock, vigilant solutions

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Comments on “License Plate Reader Company Says Public Records Requests For ALPR Documents Are Just Clickbait”

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15 Comments
Berenerd (profile) says:

Soooooooo...wait....

What *is* the reason for agencies to know plate numbers? I mean, Vigilant first states that the EFF apparently has no idea that criminals go across state lines, then, later states that the information is not for tracking individuals.

“Their aim is to paint a false picture of sharing LPR data by leading their readers to believe it is reckless, unrestricted and used to track individuals.”

You can’t have it both ways! What do you think this is, the Trump administration?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: you luddites always against technology

The problem isn’t that we have ALPR technology, its that the law enforcement incarnations of it were designed by folks who think Brave New World is an instruction manual, not a warning.

There’s a simple solution to this, though, and that’s standing the design on its head — instead of making the ALPR into someone radioing every license plate it sees back to police HQ just in case a stolen car drives by, make it so Joe Cop sends the license plate number of said stolen car out to the ALPR (or ALPRs), and it sends back a "ping" if it sees the stolen car — just like a parked cop who got a BOLO for that license plate over the radio.

Still useful? Yes — the cops can use it to find a suspicious vehicle of interest, or even "tail" it by building up a set of these pings. Dragnet-level spy hardware? No — the ALPR itself ignores anything that’s not on its internal "hot list". (For bonus points, make it so there’s a limit of say 255 license plate #s on the list — first in, first out.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: great story

Automated spam post bots these days will post several innocuous messages first to establish a history of unflagged postings. This reduces the chance that automated spam detection code will flag their actual spam later on because the “poster” has a higher legitimacy rating. It’s all part of the escalating gamesmanship of spam bot versus spam detection code.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Let me paraphrase

Well, the thrust of it is more “if people hear the twisted version of what we’re doing that the EFF tries to present, they will be scared into giving the EFF money to help stop us from doing it”.

The premise that the EFF’s version is twisting the truth rather than representing it honestly is the point of dispute.

anon says:

how does this become illegal?

while i agree that surveillance is generally a bad thing, and the world is getting crazy with it, how does this become illegal? its like any other camera it can catch lots of data which can be used for any purpose. i know your not supposed to take pictures in some instances, but it seems likely the cat is out of the bag. laws aren’t really going to fix the issue.

wouldn’t a better solution be to replace licence plates with a slightly more secure system, or just get rid of them?

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