The booted heel of a data state

Border Patrol to purchase license-plate readers

Vigilant Solutions’ fixed license-plate readers
  • Vigilant Solutions’ fixed license-plate readers
  • from vigilantsolutions.com

On June 16, the Customs and Border Protection division of Homeland Security announced it was awarding a sole source, no-bid contract to Vigilant Solutions for automated license-plate readers to be used by Border Patrol agents in San Diego.

The license-plate readers would feed the images into an electronic database that a computer software program then uses to search for matches with plate numbers witnessed at crime scenes.

The contract will allow the Border Patrol to tap into Vigilant's “Law Enforcement Archival Reporting Network,” the online database where the plate numbers and images are stored for an undetermined period of time.

The use of the readers has increased in recent years.The City of San Diego's police department has purchased nearly two dozen readers. In June 2013, the city's parking-enforcement division purchased readers to aid in enforcement of the oversized-vehicle ordinance.

Law-enforcement agencies in smaller cities throughout San Diego County also use the technology. The City of Coronado purchased a reader in 2011. Police departments in Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Escondido also use the recognition devices. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has 54 readers fixed to patrol cars, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

As reported by San Diego CityBeat in 2013, privacy rights groups have objected to the growing use of the readers.

The American Civil Liberties Union has complained about the use of the readers and the refusal for law-enforcement agencies to disclose its policies on how the information is stored, how long it is kept, and what access other agencies have to it.

"As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly," reads a statement from the group's website. "This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights. Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse. The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or churches a person may visit."

In 2012, as reported by the online magazine Wired in a May 2015 article, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained information that showed the FBI had troubles justifying the use of the license-plate readers.

"[D]ocuments, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a public records request, show the FBI’s own Office of General Counsel was grappling with concerns about the agency’s use of the technology and the apparent lack of a cohesive government policy to protect the civil liberties of citizens whose vehicles are photographed by the readers. That apparently prompted an order from the [Office of General Counsel] to temporarily put the brakes on further purchases."

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Comments

Dorian, it's particularly troubling when the government uses companies, like Vigilant Solutions, to host the data. The agency then becomes exempt from privacy safeguards that it would otherwise have to follow if it hosted the data itself.

As far as I've been able to tell, federal, state and regional rules and guidelines only apply to data stored with other law enforcement agencies.

I'm OK with license plate readers that read plates, see if they're on any sort of wanted list, and then forget about them.

I am decidedly NOT OK with a scheme that keeps track of what license plates were when and where.

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