Wednesday, January 27, 2016

EFF: License plate readers shift traffic enforcement priorities to debt collection

The Electronic Frontier Foundation yesterday offered Grits an "I told you so" regarding legislation passed last year allowing Texas cops to become debt collectors, accepting credit cards for traffic ticket debt at traffic stops. I'd much rather have been wrong.

Grits had suggested that Rep. Allen Fletcher's HB 121, combined with automatic license plate reader technology, could allow police to “cherry pick drivers with outstanding warrants instead of looking for current, real-time traffic violations.”

Wrote EFF's Dave Maass (formerly of the San Antonio Current):
As it turns out, contracts between between Vigilant and Guadalupe County and the City of Kyle in Texas reveal that Henson was right to worry.

The “warrant redemption” program works like this. The agency gets no-cost license plate readers as well as free access to LEARN-NVLS, the ALPR data system Vigilant says contains more than 2.8-billion plate scans and is growing by more than 70 million scans a month. This also includes a wide variety of analytical and predictive software tools.

The government agency in turn gives Vigilant access to information about all its outstanding court fees, which the company then turns into a hot list to feed into the free ALPR systems. As police cars patrol the city, they ping on license plates associated with the fees. The officer then pulls the driver over and offers them a devil’s bargain: go to jail, or pay the original fine with an extra 25% processing fee tacked on, all of which goes to Vigilant.1 In other words, the driver is paying Vigilant to provide the local police with the technology used to identify and then detain the driver. If the ALPR pings on a parked car, the officer can get out and leave a note to visit Vigilant’s payment website.

But Vigilant isn’t just compensated with motorists’ cash. The law enforcement agencies are also using the privacy of everyday drivers as currency.
From Vigilant Solutions contract with City of Kyle
Buried in the fine print of the contract with Vigilant is a clause that says the company also get to keep a copy of all the license-plate data collected by the agency, even after the contract ends. According the company's usage and privacy policy, Vigilant “retains LPR data as long as it has commercial value.” Vigilant can sell or license that information to other law enforcement bodies, and potentially private companies such as insurance firms and repossession agencies.

In early December 2015, Vigilant issued a press release bragging that Guadalupe County had used the systems to collect on more than 4,500 warrants between April and December 2015. In January 2016, the City of Kyle signed an identical deal with Vigilant. Soon after, Guadalupe County upgraded the contract to allow Vigilant to dispatch its own contractors to collect on capias warrants.
So really, I wasn't cynical enough. Grits certainly didn't anticipate that license plate reader vendors would give away their systems in exchange for a 25 percent surcharge. EFF concluded that:
the system raises a whole host of problems:
  • It turns police into debt collectors, who have to keep swiping credit cards to keep the free equipment.
  • It turns police into data miners, who use the privacy of local drivers as currency.
  • It not-so-subtly shifts police priorities from responding to calls and traffic violations to responding to a computer’s instructions.
  • Policy makers and the public are unable to effectively evaluate the technology since the contract prohibits police from speaking honestly and openly about the program.
  • The model relies on debt: there’s no incentive for criminal justice leaders to work with the community to reduce the number of capias warrants, since that could result in losing the equipment.
  • People who have committed no crimes whatsoever have their driving patterns uploaded into a private system and no opportunity to control or watchdog how that data is disseminated. 
There was a time where companies like Vigilant marketed ALPR technology as a way to save kidnapped children, recover stolen cars, and catch violent criminals. But as we’ve long warned, ALPRs in fact are being deployed for far more questionable practices.

The Texas public should be outraged at the terrible deals their representatives are signing with this particular surveillance contractor, and the legislature should reexamine the unintended consequences of the law they passed last year.
RELATED: Bud Kennedy at the Star-Telegram offered up a column criticizing the shift in priorities:
Lawmakers originally said the system would save officers time — true — but justice reformers were concerned that collections would become the focus over traffic patrol.

EFF warned that “To Protect and Serve” would become “To Stop and Swipe.”

Read more here:


Anonymous said...

This is truly scary. Seems as if there is no privacy anymore, and that this data can be used for any purpose. I wish there was a way to stop this absurd continuation of privacy invasion.

Anonymous said...

Hell yeah. Last thing we want is cops indenturing people with warrants and making them pay them. Our schools have too much funding and our roads are perfect. People shouldn't be expected to pay for their crimes if they can just ignore the warrant. That's what our forefathers would have wanted!

And license plates aren't public. If the law was meant to make us responsible for our vehicles because they are potentially dangerous machines it would say that license plates have to be clearly displayed at all times. Where I drive each day shouldn't be something anyone can figure out just by looking at my car.

What is becoming of America!!?!?

George said...

@ Anonymous 09:19

There is a way to stop this sort of behavior from allowing our elected officials to ok this sort of thing but that would involve practically every citizen of this state to 1) Register to vote, 2) Actually go and vote, 3) Actively communicate with your Senator and Representative after the vote, and 4) Remain politically active and educated on just what these elected officials are doing. That is the only thing that really matters to the state legislators, those who will vote them into office -- an office that offers them an opportunity to get their piece of the pie that private industry puts on the plate.

The politicians of our modern era know that this will most likely not happen. They have learned that most of the people who vote for them are either connected in some way to the special interest groups, ( Vigilant, private prisons and the companies who supply these industries, etc. the list goes on and on ), or they are "team" supporters, meaning that they pretty much blindly support their Democrat or Republican regardless of what they do or don't do in office. They listen to their cheerleaders such as Rush, to name one in particular, and get all wound up and ripping and rearing to have a go at anyone who dares to challenge the rhetoric.

We all could bring about change, just by voting and encouraging our families, friends and neighbors to do the same. The change would be dramatic and speak loudly to those who would purport to control our elected officials that the citizens have spoken and will continue to do so.

Will this happen? I doubt it, cynically speaking, I'm 60 now and it just seems like the younger citizens simply aren't motivated to become actively involved in the political process. They should be though because they truly the future of our state and nation. At some point, this madness of big money controlling government must stop.

Anonymous said...

Given the sheer amount of warrants cities and counties across the state have, not to mention how many stolen cars are out there driving around on a given day, I don't see a lot of people opposing this technology. As cities like Houston face financial shortfalls of $126 million later this year, or Dallas digs deeper in debt, a company offering free equipment while making the offender pay the cost of collection is going to look pretty sweet to some of the tea party crowd driving state and county government these days.

So while the license plates are public by virtue they are displayed in public every time we drive along a roadway, the data tied to them might be made less so even with public record access being what it is. Should local governments resist the siren's call when the alternative is their need to dig deeper into our pockets to pay for the services we all demand? Is there anyone out there that thinks it is more likely that the current crop of state leaders won't jump on the bandwagon as long as the state gets a cut than for them to pass legislation against it?

And George, a youngster like you has been around to see far worse from government, at least if you grew up in this country, those who hearken to the good old days sometimes need to be reminded that however good they may have been for some of you, they weren't always so great for the rest of us.

He's Innocent said...

Be afraid, be very, very afraid.

This is indeed a slippery slope. If you are driving a car that is known to have an outstanding fine against it, but you did not incur that violation, will they demand payment from you anyway? Haul you off to jail anyway? Then you are a hostage to their demands of payment. What happens to your kids that were in the car as well? The dog?

What about folks like me who have no convictions on their record, but as part of my spouse's probation, my car is "recorded" as a vehicle he may be driving. If they want, they can pull me over for that reason ALONE and harass me. What will the plate reader system enable them to do? They going to harass me because I am in a child safe zone in a car that the computer alerted was not to be in a child safe zone because he is a registered citizen?

Oh, you who are naive, you should trust Scott's instinct on this and be very, very afraid.

I am.

Anonymous said...

He's Innocent, if you knowingly drive a car that has warrants attached to the plate by virtue of a previous driver, you may well be stopped and a few questions asked. As long as you have your driver license and insurance, you will be sent on your merry way, no harm, no foul, though they may run it to see if you have any violations. There's no need to embellish during such speculation as the state doesn't allow for the cop to confiscate the car or they would have done that on the original traffic stop.

Past experiences with such devices is that they return notice of violations too late to have an impact in a big city such as Dallas or Houston, at least with moving traffic, both communities under staffed enough that even free, they are not going to make full use of them in the first place. All it takes is a 30 second delay and they are rendered useless under many conditions, existing communication devices well known to offer many additional quirks to limit their impact under most real life conditions.

Chris H said...

@Anonymous 2:13

This is a demonstration using open source tools using a normal photograph. It takes about 2 seconds of processing to obtain the correct number. It would take about 10 milliseconds to further match that number against a hit list.

Chris H said...

Here is a demonstration of actual speed.

Chris H said...

And from video:

Anonymous said...

Having worked with these devices previously, two different versions of them, they are nowhere near as fast as displayed. I'm sure many officers would like such gear if it worked as shown but the reality is that they were never even close to that fast on the slowest of nights when traffic was light and the devices were working perfectly, a rarity to be addressed as well.

Chris H said...

Here it is real time, stationary at a toll "booth"

Here it is real time in a cop car in 2006:

The Phantom Bureaucrat said...

Anon 2/02/2016 07:00:00 PM,
you are probably referring to the Motorola based equipment that Houston used. It was constantly breaking down, would return hits 20 to 45 seconds after capture, and had a myriad of issues related to the accuracy of data. While most of the youtube clips Chris posts are from company websites and are suspect as any sales demonstration would be, technology is rapidly improving. The various versions used by Houston were best suited for parked cars, in parking lots downtown, apartment complexes, and other places where large volumes of vehicles could be processed. This is in part due to company connections to high ranking city employees that some claim are too friendly, perhaps even on the vendors payroll, but I have no firsthand information in that regard.

Technology is improving but there are still major issues involved, some of it related to exactly what an agency wants to find, from toll road violators, stolen cars, warrants (city, county, state, and NCIC), or even based on reports of suspicious activity. Larger cities always want more comprehensive systems yet are less willing to pay enough to maintain them, hence the many reported problems from Houston and Dallas. Smaller agencies have fewer issues for all the expected reasons.

Anonymous said...

I always chuckle when I hear people freaking out about privacy. Be like me and accept it: THERE IS NO MORE PRIVACY!! The government has way too many gadgets they can use to obtain ANY information about ANYONE. As for the license plate readers, hell your neighbor is already using an app to get your info using your license plate. Long gone are the days of "getting to meet your neighbors". Like I said JUST ACCEPT IT AND QUIT SWEATING IT!!