Company Uses Bogus Polls And Gag Orders To Protect Image Of License Plate Scanning

from the despite-all-these-efforts,-still-rather-reviled dept

Vigilant, one of the nation's largest automatic license plate reader (ALPR) contractors, is trying to keep its public image as untarnished as possible. At this point, Vigilant has nearly 2 billion license plate records stored in its databases, which can be accessed by hundreds of law enforcement agencies.

Very recently, Vigilant took the state of Utah to court for violating its First Amendment right to take pictures and make money (photography/Citizens United, for those trying to keep score) by not allowing it to set up shop within its borders. As that news surfaced, so did a press release from the ALPR contractor which featured glowing comments from law enforcement officers who claimed the database helped track down bad guys (the baddest of the bad, too -- pedophiles) and did nothing more than anyone with a camera could do -- take photos of license plates.

Now, it has issued a very questionable poll that claims its technology has widespread support from the American public.

The survey asked seven questions, the first of which was the following: "In your opinion has license plate recognition—the ability for law enforcement to take photographs of license plates with a data and time stamp—helped to solve crimes?"

The results showed that 62 percent of respondents said yes, 10 percent said no, and 29 percent said they were unsure. What conclusion did Vigilant and Zogby draw from this result? It touted that "by a 6-1 margin, Californians say that license plate recognition technology helps police solve crimes."
That bit of exclusionary math notwithstanding (6-4 would be more accurate), it's not clear whether many of the respondents even knew what a license plate reader was or how much data these readers are capable of collecting (up to 60 plates per minute). The respondents may also have been unaware that the plate readers collect far more than photos of license plates. They also collect time/date/location data. So, when those polled responded to the following question, they may not have had any idea how easily the supposedly-innocuous ALPRs can connect a person with a license plate.
The survey also asked: "Do you agree or disagree that license plates reveal nothing about me. People who see my license plate cannot determine my name or where I live."

Roughly 24 percent of respondents said that they strongly agree; 30 percent somewhat agree; 21 percent somewhat disagree; 17 percent strongly disagree and 8 percent were not sure.
There's some iffy wording here as well -- the polling company provided no information that shows just how many agencies and entities have access to Vigilant's LPR databases along with access to other driver data from other locations, all of which is linked by license plate numbers. Even without this information, the margin of "victory" for Vigilant is slim: 54% to 46%. But Vigilant has used this flawed poll to claim that Californians support the use of LPRs.

But that's not the only way Vigilant is trying to maintain a positive PR front. The other aspect is more insidious than a small sampling of Californians answering badly-worded questions.
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.
Vigilant isn't the only manufacturer of law enforcement surveillance/tracking technology to try to keep cops from talking about their shiny new tools. As you'll recall, Harris, manufacturer of the cell tower spoofer called the Stingray, made law enforcement agencies sign the same sort of non-disclosure agreement at the time of sale, one that also prohibited disclosure to not just the media, but to other government agencies as well. This worked out well for law enforcement officers, giving them a reason to skip seeking warrants… right up until all of this was made very public by a court battle.

Here's the actual wording in Vigilant's contract, as uncovered by the EFF:
You shall not create, publish, distribute, or permit any written, electronically transmitted or other form of publicity material that makes reference to LEARN [Law Enforcement Archival and Reporting Network] 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 [sic].
Vigilant knows the public would undoubtedly have issues with its multi-billion license plate collection and the fact that several hundred thousand new records are being generated every day. If it had any belief in its product's ability to instill public confidence it wouldn't be suing states, publishing questionable polls and swearing those with inside knowledge to secrecy. Update: After these terms became public, Vigilant has now updated the terms to make them slightly less crazy...

Law enforcement agencies know this as well, but have been willing to let their silence speak volumes. In most cases, technology like that provided by Harris and Vigilant goes into service well before the public even hears about it. Only when it's exposed are any moves made to introduce privacy protections, minimization procedures or anything else that should have been present before the tech hit the streets.

The ultimate hypocrisy of it all is that both Vigilant and law enforcement agencies defend the mass capture of license plate/location data as just gathering publicly-available information. But when it comes to their info, everything's a secret, enforced by contract if necessary. Then they go even further and claim the public information gathered is private and can't be released, even to the owner of the license plates captured. It's a one-way street of data that's disingenuous, dishonest and, above all, an insult to the very public these agencies are meant to serve.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 5:47pm

    The public should have access to all these metadata databases. Vigilant said there's nothing personally identifying inside them.

    Same with mobile telephone databases. After all, "It's just metadata".

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 5:54pm

    Yet another low end company trying to make money off of information rather than actually create a real product everyone wants.

     

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 6:55pm

    Law enforcing is bad!!!!!! Join the cop hating Cushing club now!!!!

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 9:07pm

      Re:

      timcushinghatescopsthatabusethesystemandnottheideaofcopsingeneral.com

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 10:46pm

      Re:

      If you need to lie to enforce the law, you're a joke.

      Why don't you find yourself some coke and turn yourself in, eh?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2014 @ 2:44am

      Re:

      Law enforcing is bad!!!!!!!!11!!!1

      Why do you believe that?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2014 @ 5:46am

        Re: Re:

        Why does Cushing?

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          icon
          That One Guy (profile), May 3rd, 2014 @ 10:18am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Good question. Oh, right, he doesn't, what he, and others here hate, is when those that are supposed to be enforcing the law and protecting people, instead use their power and authority to bend if not break the law, threatening the people they're supposed to be protecting.

          There's also the question of whether or not a particular law is just or makes sense, but that's an argument for another time.

          In short:
          Enforcing the law = Good
          Abusing their authority('I AM the law!') and bending or breaking the law = Bad

           

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          •  
            identicon
            Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2014 @ 10:38am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Then he should run for sheriff or magistrate or some office and try to change things instead of just being a one topic writer. Cushing for magistrate. Arrest them cops! Except now what will he write about.

             

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            •  
              identicon
              Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2014 @ 1:05pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Why does someone need to fix something first before they can to criticize it?

               

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            •  
              identicon
              Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2014 @ 12:23am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Then you should write an article about how cops are honest and should be allowed to get away with lying. Average_joe (or whoever the hell you are) for TechDirt writer. Except now what will you whine about.

               

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 6:59pm

    Since there is no issue with privacy at all over license plate data, how about we see the CEO, all the company officers involved, as well as all the cops that personally want to recommend this publicly post their data. After all, according to this poll, the majority think there is no issue with privacy here.

    So where is the opt out in this? Funny I can't find any mention of being able to deny the collection of my data. Yet if I were a congressman, my plate could be read with no data returned when it was queried in the database.

    What the heck is wrong with this picture?

     

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      OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 3rd, 2014 @ 2:54am

      Re:

      Sick, isn't it? They try to argue that it's so helpful for law enforcement, so I suggest removing the data collection from the system, unless and only after a scanned plate matches an entry on their list, as this would provide LE with their potential benefit while removing most of the dangers, and yet they act like the sky will literally fall down if the data retention is removed or altered. So much for the presumption of innocence, among other things.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, May 2nd, 2014 @ 7:29pm

    Diebold Redux

    Where have we come across companies acting like this before?

    It didn’t end well that time, either...

     

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    Chris-Mouse (profile), May 2nd, 2014 @ 7:37pm

    I wonder how company executives would react to an automated camera photographing all cars entering and leaving the parking lot at their office.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 8:13pm

    "Very recently, Vigilant took the state of Utah to court for violating its First Amendment right to take pictures and make money by not allowing it to set up shop within its borders."

    What? - Serious?

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2014 @ 8:31pm

    If the FDA can limit the free speech of dietary supplement makers and pharma for commercial purposes then why can't the govt limit the free speech of this company for commercial/profit purposes. Heck, I'm sure others can come up with other examples of government limiting free speech.

     

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    identicon
    Claire Rand, May 3rd, 2014 @ 4:30am

    Turnabout..

    Would have a lot less of a problem with this sort of thing (ALPR is very common here in the uk), *if* it was a bit more open. Specifically there is an organisation collecting the info - seperate from the police etc (don't care if its a gov department, just a line between them however paper thin). This then charges per trawl of information.

    Point is two fold:
    1. makes a trawl an item in a budget somewhere, as opposed to the current black hole of 'we've paid for it, we'll use it', now actually needs a bit of though.
    2. it could actually be open to _anyone_ to pay for and get back that trawl.

    We are told such information is not private as it IDs the car not a person, and its all taken in public places. Well no reason to keep it private then.

    If I want to see where *my* car has been why shouldn't I? indeed why shouldn't I be able to put in any plate number and get a response back?

    Debatable what I can do with this info, but if I can see it as well as 'them' its less of an issue to me (because its a lot clearer just what they store, as well as easier if I so care to check if its right, if anyone has cloned my plate).


    For the 'privacy' aspect, over here you tighten up who can find out who a reg plate belongs to, for people who _need_ secrecy of movement for whatever reason you provide a way to have the plate changed.

    Plus side it becomes a lot easier to check on our lords and master fiddling expenses, perhaps if charged with something yourself show you, or at least your car, was somewhere else at the time that sort of thing.

    Make this work both ways..

     

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    identicon
    GEMont, May 3rd, 2014 @ 6:29am

    To Protect and Serve the Masters

    "It's a one-way street of data that's disingenuous, dishonest and, above all, an insult to the very public these agencies are meant to serve."

    Well, there's your problem then.

    Whatever gave you the idea that the agencies that use these license plate readers were meant to serve the public?

    Oh sure, the cops used to claim their job was to serve and protect the public decades ago, when that sort of ersatz altruism was popular - when America was still pretending to be Hollywood America - but this is the post 9/11 era and America is now The Homeland and all the rules have changed.

    The cop's motto is "Protect and Serve."

    It is NOT "Protect and Serve the Public."

    In case you forgot, the Public is now "The Adversary".

    All you have to do now is figure out exactly who they are protecting and serving. Since its obviously not the Public, the task should not be too difficult.

    Here's a hint. Its exactly the same "folks" that the NSA are protecting and serving by spying on everybody else. Thus its merely a simple matter of elimination my dear Watson.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Reality bites, May 3rd, 2014 @ 7:35am

    More evil is perpetrated by those in authority than those under it.

    Who really watches the watchers?

     

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    OldMugwump (profile), May 3rd, 2014 @ 7:43am

    The problem is licence plates, not scanners

    It's time to get rid of license plates.

    Modern tech makes looking up owners from plate numbers trivial - you don't need a plate scanner, you just need a camera and Internet connection.

    When introduced 100 years ago, plates could have had the owner's name on them - but that was considered an unreasonable invasion of privacy. Quasi-random plate numbers made looking up owners possible, but intentionally difficult and slow.

    Technology has changed that. We accept plates now only because we're used to them. Unless you think it's also a good idea to require pedestrians to wear a giant sign with their name on it, it's time to get rid of license plates.

    Cars already have VIN numbers stamped all over them - that is enough. The VIN is printed small and isn't readable by every passing person.

    If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, then the cop can ask for your vehicle paperwork.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Pragmatic, May 6th, 2014 @ 9:16am

      Re: The problem is licence plates, not scanners

      Yeah, but how do you report a crime involving a vehicle? If someone steals my car it'd be easier to find it and return it to me if I provide a license plate number than if I say it's a black Ford Mustang, or something. Otherwise, overzealous cops would be pulling over every black Mustang owner they could see.

      While we shouldn't see due process as an impediment to justice, we shouldn't be creating impediments to justice for the sake of enforcing due process because we're not suffering as a result of crime ourselves.

      We will always have to strike a balance between the reasonable expectation of privacy and providing law enforcement officers with the tools they need to carry out their jobs.

      The fact that some law enforcement agencies and officers behave badly doesn't mean they all do. And, like it or not, we do need them. The last thing we want to do is get rid of publicly-funded law enforcement and rely on private policing — or ourselves — for protection from criminals.

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Mr.Enlarged_Prostate, May 3rd, 2014 @ 4:39pm

    Next thing..

    You know the next thing is RF/GPS Transmitter on your license plate.

    You'll be tagged like a water buffalo.

     

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    TechNoFear (profile), May 3rd, 2014 @ 11:04pm

    I have done some work on ALPR systems for law enforcement outside of the US (as I also designed some AEI and digital image processing systems).

    Even the police here had concerns about privacy.

    An issue that delayed the implementation was that the ALPR system would also record covert police vehicles, which the covert police departments did not like anyone having access to.

    No problem, supply a list and those plates will be excluded from capture.

    But that would require the covert police department to publish a current list of all its plate numbers, which it also did not want to do...

    [Note: This system was not publicly accessible, nor even accessible by your 'average policeman'. Access is very strictly controlled and monitored. Even the developers did not have access to the 'real' data.]

     

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      That One Guy (profile), May 3rd, 2014 @ 11:38pm

      Re:

      I guess I'm not seeing it, you say they were 'covert' police vehicles, which at least to me suggests that there's nothing there that would indicated 'police', so even if it did log the plates, what would it matter, it would just be another vehicle on the road to the system.

      Unless I'm missing something, it sounds to me like a massive case of double standards, where they were fine with recording and tracking the vehicles of non-cops, but didn't want anyone tracking their vehicles.

       

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        TechNoFear (profile), May 6th, 2014 @ 1:05am

        Re: Re:

        As an example;

        The police department that investigates 'bad cops' would not want those 'bad cops' to see that they were being investigated / followed (and / or the number plates of the cars belonging to the investigators).

         

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    Gaming_Geek (profile), May 5th, 2014 @ 5:34am

    I firmly believe that three people with different views can take the same statistical results and make them say that they support their view and not the others' views.

     

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    limbodog (profile), May 5th, 2014 @ 7:57am

    Police departments should not have the authority to sign an agreement that requires that degree of secrecy.

     

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    identicon
    Claire Rand, May 5th, 2014 @ 9:15am

    'special' plates

    Knew someone who bought a second hand car, bit of an oddball one, big, heavy, had a small safe welded into the boot. Sort of limo type car, bought because well because he could.

    Ex diplomatic car from some small African country, nowhere special, didn't think much of it. He was going to reregister it to put a personal plate on it, but never got round to it.

    Anyway was doing somewhat over the limit on a motorway, car pulled out behind him, turned on the bright blue roof rack, he was getting ready to pull over then the lights when off and the police car pulled back into traffic.

    He also realised he had never had a parking ticket for this car, yop it was still on the 'special' list of car not to disturb the occupants of.

    Dunno how long that lasted for, I mean you don't have access to the 'special' list, there is no form to get yourself removed from it.

    Mind you this is in the UK, a country where ambulances get speeding tickets, and have to provide evidience of the call they were attending to get them cancelled - with the associated levels of extra manpower needed to handle this. The fire service has the same issue.

    The police don't though, they just don't get the tickets, and from the way they drive apparentyl don't have to follow other laws either when I think the phrase is "it would harm opperational efficiency to do so", i.e. park of double yellows outside a take away etc.

     

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