Texas police departments are conspiring with a private company called Vigilant Solutions in an outrageous scheme to maximize the extortion of citizens, while collecting reams of personal information to use for commercial profit.
In the deal—dubbed “warrant redemption”—Texas law enforcement agencies get free automated license plate readers (ALPRs) as well as access to Vigilant’s massive database and analytical tools. In exchange for this, police departments give Vigilant all of the data they collect on drivers, along with access to information about all outstanding court fees. The cops don’t pay a dime, and Vigilant uses this information for nearly unlimited commercial purposes.
ALPRs are becoming increasingly common in law enforcement, being a form of mass surveillance, collecting real-time information on people’s whereabouts and feeding it into databases to access at any time. Regardless of whether you are suspected of a crime, these systems are tracking your movements, telling law enforcement things like what doctors you visit, what political activities you participate in, and where you sleep at night.
Local cops are mostly interested in using ALPRs to find drivers with outstanding court fines, pulling them over and giving them an ultimatum: pay up or get arrested. The deal with Vigilant Solutions makes it a bonanza for both cops and the company. They are preying on people through a new Texas law that allows credit and debit card readers to be installed in patrol vehicles so they can take payment on the spot.
As police cars patrol the city, they ping on license plates associated with the fees. The officer then pulls the driver over and offers them a devil’s bargain: get arrested, or pay the original fine with an extra 25% processing fee tacked on, all of which goes to Vigilant.1 In other words, the driver is paying Vigilant to provide the local police with the technology used to identify and then detain the driver. If the ALPR pings on a parked car, the officer can get out and leave a note to visit Vigilant’s payment website.
Port Arthur, Texas has a cop on full-time duty prowling the roads in his Dodge Charger with ALPRs, looking not only for misbehaving drivers but also those who haven’t paid traffic fines. Most are living on meager incomes, and the choice of paying a fine or getting arrested is often not a choice at all.
Naturally, government officials who vote for this kind of injustice cite things such as “public safety” and “relieving minor offenders of burdens” such as an impounded car or finding a babysitter. They say the program will keep jails less crowded, but this too is a falsehood. Those who can’t pay their fine on the spot with the cop car’s fancy card reader can be jailed. In Port Arthur, this swelled the ranks of traffic and other fine-only offenders to a higher rate than most other cities in Texas.
The real reason law enforcement is using ALPRs is to generate revenue, just like traffic light cameras and civil asset forfeiture. Lawmakers even admit to this, citing increasing the budget as another reason for rolling out ALPR systems.
They don’t mind the fact that the citizens whom they profess to protect and to serve get slapped with a 25% surcharge for being the victims of this public-private conspiracy. Vigilant Solutions even has a slide titled “Can I Really Do This?” when presenting their program to police departments.
They can, in fact, do this, using a generous interpretation of Texas law that says a country or municipality “may only charge a fee for the access or service if the fee is designed to recover the costs directly and reasonably incurred in providing the access or service.”
Apparently, in the eyes of Vigilant Solutions and police, 25% is reasonable and only pertains to direct costs. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, this steep surcharge pays for not only direct costs but “the whole ALPR system, including surveillance capabilities unrelated to warrant redemption, such as access to the giant LEARN-NVLS database and software suite.”
Vigilant’s nationwide database “contains more than 2.8-billion plate scans and is growing by more than 70-million scans a month.” In its contract with law enforcement agencies, Vigilant Solutions “retains LPR data as long as it has commercial value,” which can be sold to other government bodies or other buyers such as insurance or repossession companies.
This conspiracy must also be kept from the public’s view to the greatest extent possible, according to the contract. Agencies cannot talk to the press about Vigilant without the company’s approval, and agree not to disparage the company.
EFF describes a host of problems that are being created by this injustice.
It turns police into debt collectors, who have to keep swiping credit cards to keep the free equipment.
It turns police into data miners, who use the privacy of local drivers as currency.
It not-so-subtly shifts police priorities from responding to calls and traffic violations to responding to a computer’s instructions.
Policy makers and the public are unable to effectively evaluate the technology since the contract prohibits police from speaking honestly and openly about the program.
The model relies on debt: there’s no incentive for criminal justice leaders to work with the community to reduce the number of capias warrants, since that could result in losing the equipment.
People who have committed no crimes whatsoever have their driving patterns uploaded into a private system and no opportunity to control or watchdog how that data is disseminated.
Texas is not the only place where citizens’ privacy is being sold by the state in exchange for enhanced extortion abilities. The New York Police Department just signed a $500,000 deal to partner with Vigilant Solutions and their vast database.
We must expose these perversions of state power and corporate greed if we are to have any chance of stopping them.
Justin Gardner writes for TheFreeThoughtProject.com