Privacy SOS

Over one billion records in private license plate tracking database

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Our worst nightmare with respect to automatic license plate readers is quickly becoming a reality. Federal, state, and local law enforcement appear to agree with the NSA's 'collect it all' mentality when it comes to tracking the movements of innocent motorists. And a video produced by a corporation that is making lots of money off of the destruction of our privacy shows just how that data can be used against us.

Private corporation Vigilant Solutions maintains a database containing over one and a half billion records showing the driving patterns of people throughout the United States. The data, harvested by law enforcement agencies and the corporation's own fleet, is automatically uploaded to the company's server, called the National Vehicle Location Service. But NVLS is just one product among many that Vigilant Solutions offers to law enforcement nationwide. The company also provides robust analytical capabilities to officers, as the video above illustrates.

The scenario described in the video pertains to a fictional homicide investigation, but there's no reason the same kind of investigative technique couldn't be used to look into antiwar protesters, journalists who are asking difficult questions of a police chief, or nosy city council members. As you can see, the fictional officer wasn't required to enter a reason, provide any legal justification, nor even make reference to an investigation file before he was able to query the database and use analytic tools to decipher it. When it comes to license plate tracking in the United States today, just about anything goes.

As the narrator in the video says, the plate database combined with the company's robust analytic tools make it easy for investigators to find out where someone lives or works, simply by looking at their driving history. Where we go says a lot about who we are. It also says a lot about who we know. Another of Vigilant's products offers 'Associate Analysis', enabling investigators to find out who you hang out with. Journalists who think leaving their cell phones at home to meet a source keeps them safe from the government's watchful eye, take note: you shouldn't drive to meet that whistleblower, either.

Unfortunately, license plate readers and the vast databases that contain billions of records of our movements — run by corporations and the government — are almost entirely unregulated nationwide. A handful of states have laws addressing the powerful technology, but only a few of those laws meaningfully forbid the mass storage and data mining of our location histories. 

Police don't want the Massachusetts state legislature to act on a bill currently before the Transportation Committee, the License Plate Privacy Act, because it would ban them from keeping detailed records of our movements — just in case they ever want to use them against us. That's why you need to take action today to get the bill moving

The freedom of the open road is at stake. 

UPDATE: I just noticed that there is a big empty space where Vigilant Solutions' privacy policy should be on its website; screenshot below. Poetic.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.