Police Must Swear to Secrecy to Use License Plate Database

Companies are allowed to keep their private business private. But when the company is involved in law enforcement, and is a game-changer for tracking people down, one has to wonder if the secrecy is designed to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections. I don’t know if that is the case, but I think we have to be concerned.

According to Wired:

It’s no secret that police departments around the country are deploying automated license plate readers to build massive databases to identify the location of vehicles. But one company behind this Orwellian tracking system is determined to stay out of the news.

How determined? Vigilant Solutions, founded in 2009, claims to have the nation’s largest repository of license-plate images with nearly 2 billion records stored in its National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS). Despite the enormous implications of the database for the public, any law enforcement agency that signs up for the service is sworn to a vow of silence by the company’s terms of service.

Vigilant is clear about the reason for the secrecy: it’s to prevent customers from “cooperating” with media and calling attention to its database.

That database is used by law enforcement and others to track stolen cars or vehicles used in crimes, as well as to locate illegal immigrants, kidnapping victims and others — though the vast majority of license plates stored belong to ordinary drivers who aren’t suspected of a crime.

Obviously, this is not as problematic as the NSA’s methods. License plates are on cars as public information. There is no privacy being violated when a private company collects public data.

But there is a question about how the information might be used by law enforcement groups who promise to keep their access to the database secret.

Vigilant’s prohibition against talking about its system recalls a similar, even more restrictive prohibition, by the Harris Corporation, whose non-disclosure agreement with law enforcement agencies prohibits them from disclosing to the media or even other government bodies their use of a cell-phone spy tool that Harris makes, known as a stingray.

The Harris prohibition has resulted in law enforcement agencies using the stingrays without obtaining a court warrant, because the agencies have interpreted the contract to mean they cannot even tell a judge about their intent to use the devices.

However, there is no evidence that Vigilant is being used in the same way. In fact, Vigilant may not be a civil rights issue so much as a new reality that we simply must adapt to. Thanks to computers, cameras, and telecommunications, compiling a database that tracks people is easier than ever. As long as it is not violating our privacy (like reading our emails, etc) then we are going to have to put up with such changes.

Note: since Wired published the story, Vigilant has removed references to cooperating with the media and used other reasons for keeping their information confidential.