Profiteering from Surveillance: NMA E-Newsletter #369

Our discussion of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) often focuses on the threat the technology poses to motorist privacy as well as on the ways to limit that threat.  

And for good reason. With enough ALPRs, authorities can track the day-to-day movements of everyone who drives a car. By storing and mining that data, they can create a detailed profile of someone’s life: where they go and when, who they see, what they do. And this applies to everyone, whether they’re suspected of wrongdoing or not.  

And, as with other law enforcement “tools,” municipalities, enticed by slick operators from the private sector, have found a way to make a buck off this powerful surveillance technology.  

In this case, the municipalities are Guadalupe County, Texas, which has jurisdiction over a busy stretch of I-10 just outside San Antonio, and the City of Kyle, Texas, which patrols I-35 south of Austin. The slick operator is Vigilant Solutions, the private company that has built a database of more than 2.8 billion license plate scans and is adding to it at the rate of 70 million scans per month. 

Seems that Vigilant has made the two municipalities a deal they just couldn’t refuse: free access to its complement of ALPR equipment and to its massive database and analytical tools. In exchange, when police use the technology to identify drivers with outstanding court fines, Vigilant gets a cut. Vigilant also gets to use the valuable ALPR data the police collect on their daily patrols.  

This so-called “warrant redemption program” is made possible through a 2015 Texas law that allows police to install credit and debit card readers in their patrol vehicles to collect roadside payments for unpaid court fines. In addition, motorists have to pay a 25 percent service fee which goes to Vigilant. The alternative, in many cases, is a trip to jail. So, the driver is paying Vigilant to provide the police with the technology to identify and detain the driver.  

It’s a twisted system, and it has turned police into debt collectors, preying on those who can least afford it—all so the police can keep using their fancy surveillance equipment. This in turn takes attention away from legitimate law enforcement and public safety functions.  

The business model (and that’s what it is) depends on the court system to load down the most financially vulnerable drivers with crushing fines, penalties and surcharges. Take the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, for example. Under the program, drivers convicted of certain violations or who accumulate enough points are subject to additional annual penalties of up to $2,000 for three years. Since its inception in 2003, the program has assessed drivers more than $3.6 billion, but only half has been collected.  

That means thousands of Texas motorists cumulatively owe the state more than $1.8 billion, and many don’t even know they’re on the hook since they were not adequately notified to begin with. Official pronouncements aside, is there truly any incentive to reform such an oppressive program when there are billions at stake? Texas is not unique so it’s reasonable to assume Vigilant will spread the scam to other states around the country. 

The whole thing reminds us of the civil forfeiture racket. Thirty years ago, civil forfeiture was conceived as a tool to cripple large drug trafficking operations. Today, it has devolved into police intimidating and shaking down regular drivers along the side of the road, all to make a buck. 

In fact, some police now carry a device known as an Electronic Recovery and Access to Data (ERAD) Prepaid Card Reader. This portable technology allows officers to directly access the balance on confiscated prepaid debit cards and drain the account on the spot. Ostensibly designed to go after drug traffickers who often use prepaid cards instead of cash, the technology will no doubt make it easier to prey on legitimate prepaid card users as well.  

Oh, and by the way, the company that supplies the card readers to the police gets a cut of the seized cash. Sound familiar?

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