Private Companies Continue To Amass Millions Of License Plate Photos, Hold Onto The Data Forever

Vigilant Solutions’ automatic license plate readers are everywhere, even places where you wouldn’t expect them. Like, mounted on private companies’ vehicles. This isn’t new. BetaBoston investigated the private ALPR growth industry early last year. Unfortunately, there’s been very little good news to report since then. In fact, there still isn’t.

Vigilant’s ALPR database currently houses more than 2 billion plate scans, with nearly 100 million more being added every day by law enforcement agencies and repo companies. It actually has two databases. One can be plugged into by law enforcement. The other, housed by Vigilant-owned Digital Recognition Network, can be accessed by certain members of the public: car dealers, insurance companies, private detectives… basically anyone willing to pay access fees and who can offer a suitable justification for digging through a multi-billion plate database.

But when confronted with the possible privacy issues this massive database creates, the company is swift to point out the obvious: license plates on vehicles are, in fact, public. But this justification for the creation of the database fails to carry over to those requesting information about what’s in the database. Public records requests have routinely been denied by law enforcement, who claim releasing publicly-obtained, by definition public, license plate photos is somehow a privacy violation.

Todd Hodnett, founder of Digital Recognition Network (corporate “child” of ALPR manufacturer Vigilant Solutions), says privacy concerns should be addressed by anyone but the company making the ALPR equipment and the one housing billions of plate photos accessible by non-government entities.

Hodnett… added that state and federal laws protect the privacy of motorists’ information. State lawmakers, he said, could instead focus on restricting public access to the records and requiring state government oversight and more transparency.

He also points out the hypocrisy of the current situation:

“For the state on one hand to require that you place a license plate with six or eight alphanumeric characters on your vehicle and then on the other hand come back and say that is private – well it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It is not private. Otherwise, how could they require you or mandate you to expose it?”

It’s a good point, but one Hodnett ultimately doesn’t care about. At present, plates are considered “public” — which allows his company to do what it does with no legal ramifications. And when the massive database of plate and location info is threatened, DRN’s parent company (Vigilant) is prone to filing lawsuits claiming its license plate photography is protected speech.

It also goes to great lengths to portray any limitation of its plate readers as a threat to public safety.

Brian Shockley — vice president of marketing at Vigilant — plans to warn legislators that Massachusetts risks getting left behind in the use of a new tool that helps fight crime.

“I fear that the proposed legislation would essentially create a safe haven in the Commonwealth for certain types of criminals, it would reduce the safety of our officers, and it could ultimately result in lives lost,” Shockley is scheduled to say in testimony prepared for the hearing before the Joint Transportation Committee.

This may sound reasonable, but Shockley’s claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As it stands now, ALPRs seem nearly as likely to return false positives as generate useful leads.

Until there’s any serious pushback, Vigilant is free to arm both cops and citizens with plate scanners and sell access to both. And until someone starts seriously considering the fact that a plate/location database containing billions of records unrelated to criminal activity might be a bit of a privacy issue (in terms of long-term tracking of people’s movements), Vigilant has no reason to alter even the most questionable of its practices. After all, it’s not as if law enforcement agencies and their private customers (through DRN) have any problem with limitless collection and retention.

Fulton County Police Dept. Corporal Kay Lester:

“Per our understanding, the data that we contribute stays on the database indefinitely,” Lester said in an email. “We can change the time frame if we choose, but since the data is only accessible to (law enforcement agencies), we currently have elected not to do so.”

This is the standard m.o. for most law enforcement agencies in the country. As McClatchy reports, only 10 states have implemented laws governing collection and retention of license plate photos. There’s even less oversight of Vigilant’s “private” collection — the database accessible by corporate customers. Until laws are passed governing the private side of Vigilant’s collection activities, the company is free to hold onto everything forever.

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