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.