By Ali Winston The Center for Investigative Reporting
Police departments in the Bay Area and across the United States have adopted automated license-plate readers as a crime-fighting tool — technology capable of spotting vehicles that have been reported as stolen. But with few controls on how the license-plate data are used or handled, the devices have emerged as a major concern for privacy advocates, who say the technology can be used to track people whether or not they’re suspected of any wrongdoing. Now, the types of data collected and analyzed with the help of license-plate readers are expanding into other realms of personal information.
Documents obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting show that a leading maker of license-plate readers wants to merge the vehicle identification technology with other sources of identifying information, alarming privacy advocates. Vigilant Solutions is pushing a system that eventually could help fuse public records, license plates and facial recognition databases for police in the field.
The Livermore company released its own facial recognition software last year for use in stationary and mobile devices. The technology uses algorithms to determine whether a person’s face matches that of somebody already in a law enforcement database. Like license-plate readers, facial recognition technology has been criticized for incorrectly identifying people.
Vigilant also is the market leader in license-plate data collection. The company runs the Law Enforcement Archive and Reporting Network database, which stores more than 2.5 billion records and adds roughly 70 million new license-plate scans monthly. The company offers law enforcement free access to its license-plate data through another database, the National Vehicle Location Service.
Vigilant sells license-plate readers to over a dozen California agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and the Sacramento Police and County Sheriff’s departments. For its business with law enforcement in the city of Alameda, Anaheim, Marin County, San Rafael and Sacramento, Vigilant won the contracts without going through a competitive bidding process.
A Vigilant PowerPoint presentation about its products, obtained by CIR, contains a section on the “near future” for the company. That includes a fusion of public records, license-plate data and facial recognition, according to the slide. Another technology, dubbed MOAB, would help law enforcement find vehicles using a “probabilistic assessment” of a vehicle’s location based on historical data and public records.
Another slide prepared for Texas law enforcement shows how a combined data program could work. It would pull mug shots from the local Department of Motor Vehicles database and notify law enforcement with an alert if “a vehicle is associated with someone with a known criminal history.” The slide also describes “facial images embedded into” the license-plate record. Another describes how Vigilant’s FaceSearch application works on mobile devices.
Amy Widdowson, a Vigilant spokeswoman, said the slides reviewed by CIR 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.”
Privacy advocates said combining historical plate-reader data with public records and facial recognition technology runs contrary to law enforcement’s argument that license plates are not considered personally-identifying information.
Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department for information about their collection and use of license-plate data, said Vigilant’s plans could represent a sea change in the technology.
Noting that Vigilant already offers analytical software that traces the movements of a vehicle through the public and private plate-reader data it retains, Lynch said the company’s plans could pose a threat to individual privacy.
License-plate readers could move into uncharted territory by combining into one search tool the location data from license-plate readers with public records such as court files and property records — as well as photographs of individuals from criminal or DMV databases. That tool, in turn, could be used with facial recognition software.
A plate reader could tag a passing car and the names of people associated with the vehicle and keep a log of where that person traveled. That data potentially could be stored for months or years.
“When you’re combining data from multiple sources, it becomes incredibly revealing,” Lynch said.
This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more, visit cironline.org. Winston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.