Private Company Amassing Database of License Plate Data

Mike TuttleIT Management

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Back in November, Josh Wolford opened quite a discussion about the rising prevalence of license plate readers in law enforcement. These scanning devices read license plates quickly and compile data to help track movements, reveal stolen vehicles, etc.

Some have expressed concern that such ubiquitous tracking of license plates is a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution., which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure and outlines the necessity of warrants in searches.

However, the counter-argument is that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections only apply when there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy". License plates are issued by the state, and technically remain property of the state. Police are certainly permitted to read and run your plates. Supporters of the scanning technology say that this only allows them to do that faster. Beyond that, the rules of probable cause and searches still apply.

The great concern that some have now is that data from these scans is now being compiled. They fear that profiles can be built to construct a data "picture" of a person's movements. Over time, that kind of tracking, can yield quite a profile on a person in terms of personal habits and proclivities. And, if your cameras are concentrated thickly enough in an area (Washington, DC has one reader per square mile, so far) that picture gains definition quickly. With enough info, it is almost as unbroken a stream of info as a GPS tracking device would provide.

And now, there is a new wrinkle. This data is not held by the police, but by a private company.

California-based Vigilant Video sells license plate scanners. It has competitors. But, what Vigilant does is unique. They compile a database of the scans - hundreds of millions of them - and have built the National Vehicle Location Service. The service is available to use for free by law enforcement.

What sort of result could come from identifying and tracking capability held by private companies?

Of course, we already have that, to some degree. For example, on a Facebook post I made recently about reading Stephen King's newest book, this appeared:

We're used to those. But, could we get to the level of Minority Report ads? Is it a matter of "if"? Or of "when"?

I'm glad you asked.

Have a look at one of Vigilant Video's other databases. This one is called LineUp. It stores facial and full-body recognition profiles into a database. Profiles, not just of someone committing a crime, but of anyone who walked into the surveillance area.

Of course, Vigilant Video company reps are quick to point out that only authorized law enforcement agencies can use their databases. But, privacy advocates are always quick to add: "For now..."

Mike Tuttle
Writer. Google+ Writer for WebProNews.