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.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Berenerd (profile), 5 Apr 2018 @ 12:16pm

    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?

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2018 @ 12:24pm

    you luddites always against technology

    it's the 21st century go back to horses luddites

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

    • identicon
      HTB, 5 Apr 2018 @ 1:22pm

      Re: you luddites always against technology

      "This article criticizes a specific use of a technology, therefor the author must be against the technology as a whole and any technological advancement in general."

      Seems reasonable.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2018 @ 1:49pm

      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.)

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Dee Mulcted, 5 Apr 2018 @ 12:28pm

    great story

    wee need this

    look forward to more

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

    • identicon
      Thad, 5 Apr 2018 @ 12:44pm

      Re: great story

      That's weird. Spam posts usually have links in them.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2018 @ 2:54pm

        Re: Re: great story

        I was thinking the same thing

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2018 @ 9:21am

        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.

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

  • icon
    Jeremy Lyman (profile), 6 Apr 2018 @ 4:26am

    Let me paraphrase

    "If they knew the full extent of what we're doing it would scare people into giving them money to help stop it"

    Is that about it?

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

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 6 Apr 2018 @ 8:38am

      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.

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

      • icon
        Jeremy Lyman (profile), 11 Apr 2018 @ 5:14am

        Re: Re: Let me paraphrase

        Right, but couldn't they counteract EFF's misrepresentation by just explaining themselves what they do and how their systems work? Surely that'd be more accurate than EFF trying to reconstruct what happens based on publicly available documents like a crime scene investigator.

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

  • identicon
    anon, 6 Apr 2018 @ 12:58pm

    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?

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

  • identicon
    James C. Walker, 7 Apr 2018 @ 5:33am

    ALPR time limit

    This is SO easy to solve. We need a simple federal rule that all license plate numbers recorded by any type of ALPR system be completely deleted from the records after seven days if they do not "get a hit" for a legitimate follow up by authorized law enforcement authorities.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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

  • identicon
    Batshit Crazy, 7 Apr 2018 @ 5:38pm

    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

    Clearly law enforcement agencies should not be required to contribute to this fear agenda by releasing information on how the LPR data is actually used.

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


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Techdirt Logo Gear
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.