Meet the Company That Can Track Everywhere You've Been and Tell Police About It
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Last month, the Department of Homeland Security called for bids on a national license plate tracking system. The database would contain information from license-plate-reader cameras that scan and log passing cars and assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in hunting down "criminal aliens and absconders," according to the contract proposal. As the Washington Post pointed out, DHS failed to address the privacy issues that might arise from recording the movements of anyone who's ever been in a car.
After the bid unleashed a torrent of criticism and bad publicity, DHS canceled the contract proposal and claimed that ICE leadership didn't even know about this effort to up their game. Everyone relaxed; DHS was not trying to build a database of everybody's vehicular movements after all. As it turns out, DHS didn't need a national license-plate database, because such a database already exists. It's run by a private company called Vigilant Solutions and ICE and other law enforcement agencies have been dipping into it for years, according to documents obtained by ACLU Massachusetts.
According to its website, Vigilant "creates intelligence by merging previously disparate data sets such as fixed and mobile license plate recognition, public records, facial recognition, and more." In its spare time, it's suing the state of Utah for passing a law restricting the collection of license plate data.
AlterNet spoke with Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the Massachusetts ACLU, about Vigilant Solutions, law enforcement abuses of privacy and the dangers posed by license plate reader databases.
Tana Ganeva: Why do you think there was so much confusion around this story and what should people know?
Kade Crockford: I'm not sure why there was so much confusion about the story. The first references to it I saw were from the right-wing blogosphere and basically the headlines were things like, "DHS plans to build massive license plate reader database!" Naturally I was interested in that because it is a pet obsession of mine. And so I clicked on the solicitation for bids and I actually read it—unlike that many people who wrote about it. And it was pretty clear to me that in fact no, DHS did not intend to build its own nationwide license plate reader database. The solicitation read almost exactly like it was written by the company Vigilant Solutions, a description of a database the company already offers law enforcement nationwide.
So my assumption is that in fact what DHS was doing was going through a relatively mundane bureaucratic procedure that they have to go through in order to apportion funds for the purchase of more subscriptions to this database.
As a document we posted to the ACLU website shows, ICE has been tapping into this database for years. Law enforcement all over the country has been tapping into it. The FBI more than likely does as well. It holds about 2 billion individual license plate records in it, and according to the company it grows almost 100 million plate reads per month and those numbers are just going to keep going up. So ultimately what we're looking at is a database that contains billions of records and law enforcement has access both for free on a tier one subscription plan, which allows a limited number of searches per week or month and then a tier two subscription service that they have to pay for, which I believe gives unlimited search of the database.
So it's false to say that this database is not actually happening as a result of DHS withdrawing the solicitation. More than likely DHS is going to in fact pursue more subscriptions to this database. I would be very, very surprised if [Homeland Security Secretary] Jeh Johnson instructs ICE to never use this database again. I think there's been a lot of misunderstanding about some of the basic facts about the state of license plate tracking technology today.