Be Vigilant about Privacy in Arnold

23 Jul

There have been a number of stories in the news lately about one of the newest forms of widespread surveillance – license plate readers. This technology is being deployed on cars by police (and repo men) to automatically scan nearby license plates. Saved to databases, information gleaned from these systems can provide plenty of detail about where you’ve been:

It noted that plate readers might record “vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors’ offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests.”

Of course, this technology has its positive uses:

Law-enforcement officers say they use the technology to track down stolen cars, collect unpaid tickets and identify the vehicles of suspected criminals.

There’s a local angle to this story. A year ago, Arnold police chief Bob Shockey asked the council for approval to purchase one of these units, at a cost of about $16,000 (for the unit alone – I’m assuming database access would cost more):

Shockey said the system uses three cameras to quickly read license plates in a parking lot, for example, then compares the information against a database containing lists of stolen or wanted license plates. Officers would need to verify the plates’ information with another officer with access to a larger statewide crime database.

The officers would take action only after another officer verbally verified the information, Shockey said.

The scanner would allow Arnold’s police officers to more quickly return stolen vehicles or license plates, Shockey said, and identify cars used in prior suspicious activities.

“The system would help us prevent crimes in Arnold,” Shockey said. Officers could search for a wanted person after the system located a suspicious car in a parking lot or Arnold street.

The council asked a number of questions that Shockey was unable to answer, including some “about the scanner’s operations, data storage, people’s ability to access the data and duration of data storage.” How long would Arnold keep the data collected by these cameras? A number of residents also expressed their opposition to the cameras at the meeting. The request to buy the camera was tabled, and has not been brought up again. It seems to me rather irresponsible for Shockey to bring this request to the council without having the information to answer the council’s questions – questions that should have been predictable. Bringing this kind of technology to the city should be done only after a thorough discussion, but Shockey seemed to just want a rubber stamp.

The company the city was planning to buy from is called Vigilant Video in the meeting minutes. I believe the company is called Vigilant Solutions, a subsidiary of Digital Recognition Network. Here’s a mention of the company in the WSJ article linked above:

Until recently, rival company Vigilant Solutions, a subsidiary of Digital Recognition Network, provided a counter on its website tallying its plate-scanning database. The latest read: about 700 million scans.

DRN says on its website that it can “combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars…with household income and other valuable information” so companies can “pinpoint consumers more effectively.” DRN declined to comment.

St. Charles Police are a customer of this company. Vigilant has a rather laughable article on its website responding to arguments that license plate readers (LPR) invade privacy. Their response centers on the fallacy that a license plate itself contains no data – you have to look in a separate database to know who the plate belongs to. That’s like saying my fingerprints are just a bunch of lines. Vigilant also says “Data that doesn’t match a law enforcement database is useless and should be immediately deleted.” Yeah, should. Red light cameras should not be used to give tickets to people in funeral processions, either.

I did not find any information on the political donation practices of Vigilant or other LPR companies, but if they are anything like the red light camera industry, they will start employing local shills and campaign contributions to ensure favorable opinions from city councilmen.

After reading this post, you should be more informed about LPRs. When Shockey decides to bring this back before the council, I hope he is also more informed.


2 Responses to “Be Vigilant about Privacy in Arnold”

  1. shortstop July 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    LPR systems have a legitimate use in LE. Originally though, they were touted as ‘homeland security’ tools. They can also be used at fixed positions to capture license plates entering (such as airports, gated communities, parking lots). Last I heard, there was very little sharing of information from PD to PD. Only a few were on the same network (Richmond Heights, T&C, maybe St.Louis Co). That’s been an issue for years- PDs sharing info- who is responsible for collecting and maintaining the system (cost).The data received (fugitive hits, stolen cars etc) are tied into REJIS, but not everyone PDs data collection. Chief Shockey probably intended to join a network later, but most likely his department would be holding its own information until then. Therefore, he could set his own parameters on how long the data was kept (depending on computer’s memory capacity). He could have his own policy on purging…and usually the in house system manager (could be a police officer or detective) is assigned to access, maintain and purge per policy.


    • Bud June 22, 2014 at 10:58 am #

      There are many sub uses and a cascade of possibilities stemming from ALPR technology. My name is Bud and I helped to pioneer the system mentioned. One adjustment needs to be made to the facts listed. Vigilant Solutions (formerly Vigilant Video) is NOT a subsidiary of DRN. VV is the parent company.
      Vigilant owns all of the rights to data collected by law enforcement.
      DRN is a database solution for the repossession industry.
      While law enforcement can subscribe to access the data collected by the repo industry, the repo industry cannot access data collected by the law enforcement side.
      A license plate is meant to be a public display. That is why they are mounted on the exterior of a vehicle.


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