Privacy SOS

DC lobbying firm takes issue with ACLU efforts to protect you from warrantless location tracking

NetChoice, a Washington, DC lobbying group that works on behalf of tech giants Aol, Ebay, PayPal, Yahoo and Facebook, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, has set its sights on an ACLU of Massachusetts endorsed piece of state privacy legislation. That's probably because if enacted into law, the License Plate Privacy Act will hurt the bottom line of another one of NetChoice's members, private license plate database operator and surveillance corporation Vigilant Solutions.

The ACLU is very concerned about how, when unregulated, license plate readers allow private companies and law enforcement to track innocent motorists as we drive around doing boring everyday things like grocery shopping, dropping our kids off at school, and going to work. (The cameras capture us doing not-so-boring things, too, like going to protests, abortion clinics, or alcoholics anonymous meetings.)

Unregulated, license plate readers become license plate trackers. So we are trying to regulate them — both in Massachusetts and various other states nationwide. But it's becoming increasingly clear that not everyone appreciates our efforts.

To counter a wave of bad press against its client, NetChoice published a misleading white paper aimed squarely at Massachusetts legislators, taking aim at the ACLU's July 2013 report on license plate readers, "You Are Being Tracked". The NetChoice white paper misrepresents the ACLU's position on the technology, inaccurately suggests that current federal law sufficiently regulates license plate readers, and implies that license plate readers don't capture personally identifiable information. 

Now the DC lobbying group has taken to commenting on the ACLU of Massachusetts' Facebook page, repeating many of these patently silly things about the nature of license plate readers, and distorting the truth about how dragnet databases containing our driving records can impact our privacy. You can read the comment in the screenshot above.

Among the claims NetChoice makes is that vast databases of license plate information — the largest of which is run by private corporation and NetChoice member Vigilant Solutions — don't track people, only license plates. This is similar to the NSA claiming that the phone surveillance program doesn't impact our privacy because it is only looking at phone numbers, not names. To suggest that license plate numbers are "anonymous" is equally disingenuous and ridiculous.

As every single person who drives knows, our license plate numbers are tied to our personal information, including our names and addresses. If they weren't, why would police want to keep track of them at all? To the industry lobbying group NetChoice, I submit this challenge: Try getting a car registered and licensed without a name or address attached to it and let me know how it goes. 

As for NetChoice's claim about the 'audit screen' in the Vigilant Solutions data mining tool, I'd love to see it. People from either the lobbying firm or the license plate reader company should feel free to email me more information about how its auditing system works, or post another video showing what kind of legal hoops officers must jump through before querying the database. To date I've seen no evidence that any such hoops exist. 

But rules about who can query the data and why are sort of beside the point, anyway. Like with the NSA's bulk spying programs, the major problem with license plate readers is the collection and retention of enormous quantities of data about the personal habits of millions of law-abiding people. That's exactly what Vigilant Solutions is doing with its nationwide license plate tracking database, which the company boasts has more than 1.5 billion records in it and grows by 70 million per month.

The collection and retention of this data on innocent people is the problem. If we aren't doing anything wrong, the government shouldn't be spying on us in the first place. Take action now if you agree.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.