Police in the town of Rutland, VT (population ~18,000) collected 539,680 individual license plate reads during the 18 month period between July 1, 2012 and December 31, 2013, according to a report issued by law enforcement. Census figures from 2000 put the number of families in the city at about 4,200. If we assume that there are an average of two cars per family in Rutland, that means police collected an average of 64 plate reads per car over 18 months. This figure might not seem like a lot, but consider that law enforcement throughout the state of Vermont only have a total of 61 license plate readers.
The information comes in the first of what we be annual transparency reports to the Vermont state legislature, mandated after lawmakers passed a bill in June 2013 to regulate license plate readers in the state. Unfortunately, the law allows departments and the fusion center to retain non-derogatory information about people against whom no allegation of wrongdoing has been made for up to 18 months. On the bright side, it requires that police disclose certain information about how they collect, use, and share license plate reader data.
Overall, the report shows, police statewide collected nearly 8 million records over the 18 month period. About 626,000 people live in Vermont. If 300,000 of them are registered drivers, the state retains an average of about 26 data points on each person. But while they collected huge quantities of it, the information was not particularly useful to investigators, the data shows.
While officials queried the database 105 times during the reporting period, only 40 of those searches turned up hits. In other words, more than half the time, the information police sought was not in the database.
Officials searched the statewide license plate reader database, held at the so-called Vermont Intelligence Center, for clues in investigations of all kinds: 25 related to missing persons, 16 times for drug smuggling, 7 times for a category labeled “suicidal”, 5 times in relation to domestic violence, three times for “wanted” persons, once for “threats”, and once for “suspicious”. See the chart below for details on queries.
The report confirms that the fusion center shares license plate reader data with the federal government, as civil libertarians suspect occurs nationwide. Federal agencies requested license plate reader data from the fusion center a total of 18 times. Customs and Border Patrol, which operates its own license plate readers at the US borders, requested data from the Vermont fusion center 9 times during the reporting period. The FBI and the US Marshall’s service both sought data once, while the DEA requested it twice.
So what does the report mean about the state of license plate readers in Vermont? In short, it shows that while heaps of data are retained about thousands of people, it's not particularly useful to the cops.
The statistics show that while the private driving habits of tens or hundreds of thousands of people are maintained in the state’s database, the information therein was only useful to police 40 times. Given that there are nearly 8 million records in the database, does the fact that the data was only useful to investigators 40 times justify the serious privacy harms inherent to keeping track of the movements of tens or hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people? That doesn’t seem right.
Useful or not, allowing the government to collect mass quantities of sensitive information about us absent any evidence of wrongdoing strikes me as essentially totalitarian. Knowledge is power, after all, and this kind of dragnet goes too far.
Even if the data was useful one million times, would we want the government to keep tabs on everywhere we go, just in case we ever do something illegal? If you don’t think so, tell Massachusetts legislators to pass the License Plate Privacy Act, which will restrict data sharing and retention far more drastically than Vermont’s law does. “Just in case” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as a reason to spy on millions of people, whether or not it might be useful in an investigation someday down the road. 'Collect it all' is a dangerous idea when the NSA promotes it, and it's no less dangerous when our state and local law enforcement advocate it.
As license plate readers proliferate state and nationwide, the privacy threat will only grow more serious. The time to bring the law in line with the technology is now.