Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nearly 200 Texas LEOs use license-plate-reader location tracking vendor

When George Orwell wrote the novel 1984 he was imagining future totalitarianism dominated by socialist governments. He never considered that technologies of control would be privatized in a capitalist system, but that's seems to be where we're headed. Via Privacy SOS:
Did you know that a private company which hoards detailed information about your driving habits also has plans to create the largest private sector law enforcement database in the world, by combining plate reads with commercial databases, face recognition technology and more?

Vigilant Video is a private corporation. It maintains a database called the National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS), containing hundreds of millions of data points showing the travel patterns of millions of people in the United States. The data in the system comes from a variety of sources including government agencies, other companies like tow truck and repo firms, and a fleet of company cars that drives around sucking up license plate information on our streets and in our neighborhoods
Grits went to look at the registration page for the service and found their clients on a dropdown list. Though they're not broken out by state, by my count, around 200 Texas law enforcement agencies are clients of Vigilant Video and use its vehicle location tracking services, as well as loads of federal customers. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Dallas was among their first clients when it rolled out last year and now many others, from the IRS to the Air Force, are on the list. Among Texas state agencies, the Department of Public Safety, the Attorney General, TABC, TDCJ, TCEQ, the Department of Insurance and UT-System police departments (individually and collectively) all subscribe to the service.

All the big city police departments in Texas subscribe to the service - Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso - as well as the corresponding sheriffs and district attorneys offices in those counties. But dozens of smaller jurisdictions use them, too, from Nacogdoches to Refugio, Denton to Del Rio, from Sherman to Sugar Land. Even some constables and school district police are getting into the act. Unfortunately, one can't tell how frequently they used the service without filing an open records request with the various departments for invoices from the company for its use.

This for-profit service demonstrates how outdated 20th century conceptions of privacy need significant updating in the wake of a swiftly changing technological landscape. According to Government Security News, the company plans to quickly expand its database into biometrics: 
Surpassing the challenges of a national LPR database via NVLS, our future roadmap plans an extensive integration between LPR data and public records, a facial recognition platform, and ‘leaps and bounds’ expansion of LEARN which seamlessly ties together all data sources. We are on schedule to provide the most advanced Law Enforcement criminal database loaded with billions of records -- a universal data system with one common goal in mind -- making it easier for Law Enforcement to ‘Catch the Bad Guy’.
Except, one might quibble, the overwhelming number of people whose information makes up their database aren't "bad guys." There are lots of uses for this data besides just that. For example, Grits could see such a database eventually commercialized for use by corporate marketers, or for that matter for more nefarious purposes.

Though most people don't think of it that way, location data is the ultimate biometric. One may have plastic surgery to throw off facial recognition systems or blot out fingerprints with scarring or acid. But there is nothing more unique about an individual than their location - where they are at any given moment - because two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. A growing body of research shows that even a small number of location points can tell a great deal about a person and the license plate recognition function instantly attaches that location data to an individual (or at least their vehicle).

License plate readers blur the lines between public and private information, calling into question outdated Fourth Amendment doctrines holding that Americans have virtually zero expectation of privacy outside the home. In US v. Jones last year, five US Supreme Court justices agreed for the first time that long-term location tracking without a warrant can violate someone's reasonable expectation of privacy. But it will be years before the courts, on a case-by-case basis, elaborate the extent and limits of those expectations, particularly when mediated through a third-party vendor as in this case. The folks compiling this database know the courts wouldn't allow law enforcement to gather all this data on innocent people so their business model relies upon exploiting a court-created loophole to let a private vendor do it. They're still agents of law enforcement, though, even as contractors.

License plate readers are all-but-unregulated technology with enormous implications in the coming years for personal privacy. There should be strict retention limits on use of such data and prohibitions on government sharing it with private vendors, which appears to be from whence the bulk of their information comes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Giving $16M to Steve McCraw at TX DPS will just ensure he continues his practice of giving such non-competitive and non-solicited awards to his friends and the friends of the Governor. McCraw continues to stamp purchases with emergency requisitions whereby he does not go out for competitive bids, and whereby he gives bids to "friends". The Austin American Statesman already reported on Steve's practice. McCraw is wasting MILLIONS of taxpayers dollars for not going out for competitive bidding.

When are Texans going to get Rick Perry and his money making henchmen out of office? Where there's power - there's LOTS OF CORRUPTION.