Editorial Opinion By John Chigos, Founder, Chairman & CEO at PlateSmart Technologies, Inc.
Digital Recognition Network (DRN) of Texas and their partner company, Vigilant Solutions of California, have filed a new lawsuit in Arkansas District Court. The suit contends that Arkansas’s recently passed Anti-LPR law (Arkansas Automatic License Plate Reader System Act 1491) banning the use of License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology in the state by private companies (such as repossession or ‘repo’ companies) is an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
These two companies used the same tactic earlier this year against a more sweeping ban in Utah. What wasn’t as widely reported was that the lawsuit ultimately influenced the state legislature to remove the ban.
Clearly, DRN and Vigilant believe that what worked before will work again. At the same time, Vigilant has also filed a patent infringement suit against a smaller LPR maker, MVConnect LLC.
These three lawsuits have generated a great deal of press for Vigilant, as has the National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS), their centrally stored database combining LPR capture data from both law enforcement agencies and repo companies, which they make available to law enforcement – often for a fee.
Vigilant got more media attention when it was revealed that they require strict secrecy policies about their LPR technology from agencies that use it.
From the beginning, Vigilant’s practices have consistently put the entire LPR industry in a negative light.
The ACLU may have gotten the ball rolling with the release of their July 2013 report You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans’ Movements. But Vigilant has stepped up the momentum with policies and actions that completely undermine the purpose of LPR technology and risk forever poisoning public opinion against it.
If that happens, not only will an entire industry suffer, but also the American people will be robbed of one of the most powerful tools ever invented for saving lives and fighting crime. In that case, Vigilant’s legal victories will mean nothing.
I do not relish being in the position of having to speak out against a fellow LPR maker. Because Vigilant is a competitor of mine, it runs the risk of making me appear self-serving.
Unfortunately, I see no other option. This single company is endangering the public that I am trying to protect with my software and it is doing so for no purpose other than its own revenue.
So I have chosen to state my case here as completely as I can, and show that LPR exists to protect people, not to spy on them, and not to benefit one irresponsible company.
Let’s begin with the National Vehicle Location Service (NVLS), since that is the lynchpin of the controversy swirling around LPR technology today.
If you are unfamiliar with it, it is Vigilant’s privately owned database of around 1.8 billion LPR reads collected from both public (i.e., law enforcement) and private (i.e., repo companies) organizations all across the country.
Vigilant makes this database available to law enforcement agencies via two ‘tiers’ of access.
Tier I access is free but has certain limitations as to number of searches and available features. Tier II access provides more comprehensive search capabilities in exchange for an annual fee.
NVLS data is stored indefinitely, which is what has civil liberties groups up in arms.
Now, I concede that such a central database can be a useful investigative tool. The ability to learn where a suspect vehicle has been over the course of several years has the potential to reveal evidence that other forensic methods cannot.
But this database is controlled by a private firm that has no ultimate accountability to the American people.
Furthermore, the fact that it makes data collected by repo companies available to law enforcement means that Vigilant is effectively turning those private operators into pseudo-traffic cops.
And if that precedent isn’t dangerous enough, you also have to wonder what consideration these companies are receiving for their participation.
Certainly, they wouldn’t bother to contribute to the database unless they received something in return.
Meanwhile, the NVLS is fast becoming unnecessary. More and more states are studying the issue and passing regulations that govern how long LPR capture data can be retained.
At the same time, states are building “fusion centers” that store LPR capture data from within their states and make that data freely available to any law enforcement agency that presents a proper warrant.
Maryland and Virginia are prime examples of this.
As technology continues to advance, the ability to interlink these fusion centers will render the NVLS obsolete in favor of rapidly accessible databases controlled by publicly accountable government agencies.
Moreover, these state-run databases will only contain data collected by law enforcement and they will be regulated by state laws that set down how long data can be retained.
The bottom line is that everything the public fears about LPR —the national database, the unrestricted collection and resale of data, the lack of transparency, the quid pro quo with private companies— is all coming from one company, not the industry as a whole.
License Plate Recognition as a technology is not something to fear; in its three-plus decades of existence both overseas and on this continent, it has saved countless lives and solved countless crimes.
I doubt that anyone reading this would object to LPR if it were the key to finding their missing child or catching the murderer of their loved one.
As with any other tool, it is a question of responsible use, and State and Federal governments are debating and deciding what that means as we speak.
But we have a responsibility as well—to decide as an industry to support reasonable regulation and public accountability for the use of our technology and to repudiate the practices of Vigilant Solutions and of any company that acts against that interest.
John Chigos, Founder, Chairman & CEO at PlateSmart Technologies, Inc. John is a passionate entrepreneur with numerous patented technologies dedicated to the safety and security of our nation and protecting law enforcement officers who have devoted their lives to defending ours.