Not long ago, I mentioned that the DEA wants to decorate highways with scanners that automatically record our license plates and, over time, can track our movements They can even be set to issue robo-warnings to interested parties when sought-after plate numbers come into view. What I didn't know then is that a California company has been compiling a massive database of vehicle movements that it makes available to police agencies — and that, really, the cat is just out of the friggin' bag.
According to CaliforniaWatch:
Capitalizing on one of the fastest-growing trends in law enforcement, a private California-based company has compiled a database bulging with more than 550 million license-plate records on both innocent and criminal drivers that can be searched by police. …
While privacy rules restrict what police can do with their own databases, Vigilant Video, headquartered in Livermore, Calif., offers a loophole. It's a private business not required to operate by those same rules.
The company sells its own brand of license-plate readers and has customers around the nation, including in Springfield, Ill.; Kings Point, N.Y.; and Orange, Conn. But Vigilant distinguished itself from competitors by going one step further and collecting hundreds of millions of scans to create what's known as the National Vehicle Location Service.
I should add that those "privacy rules" are really just departmental policies, and lots of departments have been buying the scanners without bothering with policies of any sort for using the accumulated data. The Washington Post reported last November that "Police departments are grappling with how long to store the information and how to balance privacy concerns against the value the data provide to investigators."
The nature of that "grappling" might best be revealed by the reaction to a now-dead California bill that would have limited to 60 days the length of time license plate data could be retained, whether gathered by police or private companies. The bill's author, Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), told CaliforniaWatch that he was swamped by law-enforcement opposition.
"Essentially, law enforcement's argument was, 'We think private-sector entities ought to be able to stockpile information on law-abiding citizens, and that information should be available to law enforcement upon request without a warrant or any probable cause,' "
Vigilant Video maintains a fleet of 2,000 scout cars on the road recording license plates, and "1,200 new law enforcement users were being signed up to use the system every month" in addition to law enforcement's own data-gathering efforts. Then there are the DEA cameras which, being federal, wouldn't be restricted by a state law like Simitian's anyway.
And, frankly, government officials have proven to be creative in interpreting laws that restrict their retention of sensitive data that they think might, someday, come in handy.
Basically, technology has progressed to the point where having identifying data fastened in plain view on a vehicle almost inevitably subjects us to tracking. Getting rid of those damned plates would be a strong step toward regaining some privacy, but it ain't gonna happen anytime soon. If only there were some creative way of substituting fake plates for the real thing …