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The Police State and License Plate Scanners

By: Peter Van Buren. This Article originally appeared at WeMeantWell.com

One of the latest tools for violating our privacy and creating the American police state are license plate scanners.

Watching You

This technology allows the police to cruise through a city at normal speed and photographically gather images of vehicle license plates, along with geolocation data. This is all stored, and can easily be used to create a record of everywhere your car has been. Coupled with cellphone and WiFi data being collected along with its own geodata, and tied to things like tracked credit card activity, emails and the now-ubiquitous public surveillance cameras, it is very, very easy for law enforcement to know where you are, where you have been and have a pretty good idea of what you were doing.

Run that same process for lots and lots of people, and you can also tell who spent time with who.

Vigilant Solutions

Expand that process nationwide and you truly have a police state.

How to do that? Contact a private company called Vigilant Solutions. They collect license plate scanning information from multiple police departments as well as their own network of private plate scanners and facial recognition/facial cataloging technology and then sell it in database form to law enforcement.

The Vigilant database is massive, with over 2.2 billion location data points, and it is growing by almost a million data points per day. The database means, for example, that the New York police can now monitor you and your car whether you live in New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.

The database also boasts a full suite data analytics tools which allow police officers to track cars historically or in real time, conduct a virtual stakeout, figure out which cars are commonly seen in close proximity to each other, and predict likely locations to find a car.

Data, once collected, can exist forever. Whatever it is being used for now, it will also be available for other uses in the future, enhanced by new exploitive technology.

As Vigilant puts it on its website, “Data is cumbersome; intelligence is actionable.”

Let’s Google It

All that is quite dangerous enough. However, the latest wrinkle is that the police in at least one city are going as far as disguising their license plate scanning vehicle as an innocent Google Maps truck. You don’t even know your location information is being gathered this way.

Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania computer and information science professor, noticed an SUV tucked away in the shadows of the Philadelphia Convention Center, bearing a logo for Google Maps. Blaze, based on his profession, also identified mounted on top of the vehicle two high-powered license plate reader cameras. To the average passerby, it might appear to be a Google street view vehicle.

After initially denying it, the Philly cops eventually admitted the van was their’s, but refused further comment.

“We can confirm that this is not a Google Maps car, and that we are currently looking into the matter,” a Google spokesperson said. She would not elaborate as to whether the company was concerned that law enforcement was using a vehicle with warrantless surveillance technology while pretending to be a Google vehicle.

It is impossible to escape this network of warrantless search and still live in society. Our cars, our phone, our credit cards and our very faces have been corrupted by a police state into tools of surveillance.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department, spent a year in Iraq. Following his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the Department of State began proceedings against him. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, Van Buren instead retired from the State Department on his own terms.