Privacy SOS

License plate trackers may someday soon be integrated with face recognition and commercial databases

The license plate tracking industry doesn’t want states like Massachusetts to pass strong privacy laws that would hurt its business. One of the more absurdly dishonest things one particular lobbying effort has claimed about license plate readers is that the technology is anonymous—license plates are just numbers, after all! This claim never made any sense.

If license plates are “just numbers”, and it’s so difficult to connect those numbers to human beings, why on earth would private companies and government agencies be clamoring to collect as much of this data as possible, and hold onto it for as long as they possibly can?

Obviously, license plate reader data alone tells the government and private companies a whole lot about us. The data is powerful. That’s why they want it.

But now it appears as if the most powerful license plate tracking company in the country, Vigilant Solutions, is making headway on long-established plans to link in other kinds of privacy-invasive tools. Soon, police officers using license plate readers in their cruisers might have immediate access not just to your location history, but also to face recognition technology and commercial databases.

SFGate reports:

A [Vigilant] PowerPoint presentation about its products, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, contains a section on the company's "near-future" that includes a fusion of public records, license-plate data and facial recognition. Other technology will help law enforcement find cars using a "probabilistic assessment" of a vehicle's location based on historical data and public records, according to the presentation.

Another PowerPoint slide prepared for Texas law enforcement shows how a combined data program could work. It would pull mug shots from a Department of Motor Vehicles database and notify law enforcement if "a vehicle is associated with someone with a known criminal history." The slide also describes "facial images embedded into" the license-plate record.

Amy Widdowson, a Vigilant spokeswoman, said the slides were of a prototype program that did not actually include facial recognition technology.

As for specific references to merging license-plate data with facial recognition and public records, Widdowson said the slide "is merely showing that law enforcement can combine data from public records with LPR (license-plate reader) data to reduce their search area for a suspect.”

That's an odd claim, given that Vigilant's own website said pretty much the opposite back in 2012:

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’.

The company's "Intelligence-Led Policing" package is probably what Vigilant was talking about. The language about "integration" has been removed from the website, as far as I can tell. It may be a prototype today, but see for yourself: the building blocks are all there.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.