Our ability to collect, store, and search data has increased at an alarming rate over the past an effort to prevent terrorism. And now, an additional debate about privacy has arisen as the Department of Homeland Security has advocated a national license plate database that will incorporate license plate image data to assist law enforcement.
Is this collection infringing on privacy rights? And should the data be available to private companies, particularly those that aid in the collection of such datadecade thanks to our ability to digitize information.
Debates over privacy have cropped up as the National Security Agency has admitted to collecting communication information on all citizens in?
The Purpose of a License Plate Recognition
The database of license plates that the Department of Homeland Security wants to create would have more than just the information collected by law enforcement, and will include information from private companies as well. This sort of information is “location” data.
Currently, thousands of cameras across the country snap pictures of license plates. Along with the captured image is the time and location of each image. This information is transmitted to massive databases which can be accessed by police who can track the whereabouts of stolen cars and possible fugitives.
How the Data is Invasive
It is not just law enforcement gathering this data. Private firms are also building massive databases of license plate information–and in most cases in greater numbers than law enforcement. These private firms can legally sell access to their data to anyone willing to pay. That includes private investigators, lenders, repo workers, and others. Privacy advocates and lawmakers find this practice a conflict of interest and extremely invasive.
This sort of data can be used to build a detailed picture of a person’s life, including who they associate with, and where they go–whether it’s to a gay bar or church, the doctor’s office, or a lover’s residence. It can also be used to create hotlists for political activists which can then be sold to those who could benefit from such private information.
The Private Connection
A survey conducted in 2012 found that more than 70 percent of the country’s police force is equipped with plate reading scanners.
But, in the private world collecting license plate data is growing rapidly. Vigilant, a private data collection agency, is preferred by many in law enforcement because it has more than 2 billion scans in a database maintained by their affiliate Digital Recognition Network. They gather their data through fleets of vehicles equipped with cameras that cruise the nation’s highways.
Vigilant claims to have more than 3,500 law enforcement clients that access their data. And business is booming for them since they bring in an estimated $500 million a year.
Other private companies are producing huge amounts of license plate data, including MVTrac and TLO (recently acquired by TransUnion) which claims to have a “massive database of 1 billion vehicle sightings,” with “up to 50 million new sightings,” each month.
Vigilant claims that tracking where cars travel is not invasive. They note that the data collected by repo workers can be accessed by the police but not the other way around. They also argue that plate numbers can’t be matched to owners because federal laws prohibit their obtaining that information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. But the flaw with that argument is that the law allows for multiple exceptions–one such exception being licensed private investigators.
Attempts to Rein in the Practice
California State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) is advocating legislation to put limits on this new industry. He feels that what is taking place is crossing a line where privacy is concerned.
Senator Hill acknowledges that license plate data can be useful for law enforcement, but that restrictions need to be implemented on how far and how accessible this information will be. He fears that this sort of partnership between police and for-profit data collection agencies will result in the police working for repo firms and insurance companies, instead of the other way around.
The legislation Senator Hill has proposed would prevent public agencies from sharing their collected data with outside private firms, and prohibit license plate scanners from entering private property unless they have the consent of the owners. It would also ease the filing of privacy lawsuits against such data collectors, which will slow down their rapid capture of private data.
Senator Hill proved how powerful these data collection agencies have become by hiring a private detective to follow his wife. Instead of tailing her movements by car, the detective paid an agency for access to their license plate data. The program was able to locate Senator Hill’s wife at a gym in Sacramento more than 100 miles away.
Challenges in Preventing the Continued Collection of Data
Senator Hill’s legislation has its work cut out for it. Back in 2012, a similar bill was proposed in California and was successfully struck down by the intense lobbying of law enforcement officials and private data collection agencies.
In the state of Utah, lawmakers attempted to restrict the commercial collection of license plate data, but backed off when they were sued by Vigilant Solutions, located in Livermore, California. For now, all attempts to restrict or prohibit this invasion of privacy have been thwarted by the right of free-speech since taking photographs in public falls under its protection.
This debate will continue to rage as the forces of free speech come in conflict with the protection of privacy. As with other technological advancements, laws will have to be reviewed and new policies implemented so that all rights are protected.
Currently, the scales have tipped in favor of protecting the aspects of free speech. But should this ability to collect and sort data increase and impact the lives of more Americans it’s hard to say where the issue will finally rest–if it does at all.
Image via Flickr by West Midlands Police