The New York Police Department (NYPD) will soon have the ability to track stolen or wanted cars even if they are well outside of the five boroughs.
The NYPD is set to sign a $442,500 deal over three years with Vigilant Solutions to subscribe to the company’s massive private automated license plate reader (ALPR or LPR) database, according to a recent contract awards hearing. The database reportedly contains 2.2 billion records.
Neither the NYPD nor Vigilant Solutions immediately responded to Ars’ request for comment. The company already makes its database available to other law enforcement agencies across the country, but the NYPD is likely the largest local client agency.
“Vigilant Video is compiling a vast database tracking Americans’ movements, and it’s no surprise that one of the most prolific users of surveillance, the NYPD, would seek to access it,” Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Ars. “But this data raises profound privacy issues, for the first time enabling the mass tracking of Americans, and we haven’t even begun to have a meaningful conversation about what the appropriate uses are for this type of data.”
Kade Crockford, an LPR expert with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, told Ars that the courts have been slow to respond as this technology advances.
“It could take a decade or more for a constitutional challenge to warrantless license plate tracking to reach the Supreme Court, if it ever does,” she wrote by e-mail. “In the meantime, police nationwide have far too much power to track the movements of totally law abiding people. Legislatures in the states and congress must act quickly to pass laws bringing license plate reader technology in line with the golden rule of American criminal jurisprudence: the probable cause warrant.”
Last year, Vigilant published a highly dubious poll that it claimed shows vast public support for its technology. LPRs are becoming increasingly common across the United States, but the devices are typically owned and operated by municipal, state, and federal law enforcement.
According to the New York Daily News, the NYPD will soon have access to the Vigilant database that will allow investigators to “virtually stake out a location.” The system also alerts law enforcement when a wanted vehicle turns up well outside of the Big Apple. Vigilant’s software even includes the ability to perform “associate analysis” to figure out who that target frequently drives with.
Repo to the rescue!
How does Vigilant get all this data? Via its subsidiary Digital Recognition Network (DRN), Vigilant sells $15,000 LPR “camera kits” to recovery and repossession companies nationwide, according a 2014 court filing by DRN’s founder.
“The camera affiliates place DRN’s ALPR systems on tow trucks or other vehicles,” founder Todd Hodnett stated. “DRN’s ALPR systems then take photographs that include nearby vehicles’ license plates. When DRN’s camera affiliates collect license-plate data using ALPR systems, DRN then disseminates the resulting license-plate data to its clients and partners, which use the data for purposes such as identifying cars that should be repossessed and locating cars that have been stolen or fraudulently reported as stolen. For example, DRN earns substantial revenue by selling license-plate data to automobile lenders and insurance companies.
“DRN also has a partnership with Plaintiff Vigilant Solutions National Vehicle Location Service, through which DRN’s ALPR data is made available to law enforcement agencies—usually at no cost to the agencies. Specifically, DRN provides captured license-plate data to Vigilant, which then shares the data with law enforcement agencies for purposes that range from utilizing near real-time alerts for locating missing persons and stolen vehicles to the use of historical license-plate data to solve crimes.”
As a result, Vigilant claims it has compiled the country’s largest private LPR database at 2.2 billion records.
Vigilant requires that its licensees—law enforcement agencies—not talk publicly about its LPR database. According to the 2014 edition of its terms and conditions: “This prohibition is specifically intended to prohibit users from cooperating with any media outlet to bring attention to LEARN or LEARN-NVLS.”
More recently, that document was updated to state:
You agree not to use proprietary materials or information in any manner that is disparaging. This prohibition is specifically intended to preclude you from cooperating or otherwise agreeing to allow photographs or screenshots to be taken by any member of the media without the express consent of LEARN-NVLS. You also agree not to voluntarily provide ANY information, including interviews, related to LEARN products or its services to any member of the media without the express written consent of LEARN-NVLS.
In particular, Vigilant’s language appears to directly conflict with the California Public Records Act, which plainly states: “A state or local agency may not allow another party to control the disclosure of information that is otherwise subject to disclosure pursuant to this chapter.”
Similarly, the New York Freedom of Information Law states: “No agency shall enter into or renew a contract for the creation or maintenance of records if such contract impairs the right of the public to inspect or copy the agency’s records.”