The Oakland Police Department was not available to comment on its policies for using license-plate readers. This story will be updated with the department’s comments when it responds.
Unlike private companies, some police departments have limits on how long they can retain the data they capture from their license-plate readers. Those limits are important for protecting innocent drivers, because a large majority of plate scans draw a blank: According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, just 2,000 in every million license-plate scans in Maryland actually raise a red flag. And most of those hits have to do with registration issues or emissions violations—just 47 in a million are connected to a serious crime.
But data-retention limits for law enforcement vary widely, and in many cases they don’t exist. Hodnett says that police agencies that want to read Vigilant’s commercially-generated license-plate data set their own access policies and retention limits. If an agency is bound by law—or elects on its own—to access only the last two years of license-plate scans, for example, Vigilant will only serve up two years’ worth of commercial data. (Vigilant’s systems also allow law-enforcement agencies to store and access their own license-plate data, and share it with with sister agencies, if they want.)
Sharing platforms for license-plate data mean that police departments that can’t afford their own license-plate readers, or that don’t want to deploy them, can still access data gathered by others. Hodnett says many of Vigilant’s law-enforcement clients don’t operate readers themselves.
That means that even police departments that spread their use of license-plate readers evenly across income lines in the cities they serve—or those that don’t use them at all—can still benefit from the more idiosyncratic data-gathering of private organizations like repossession agencies, which may have an incentive to focus their time and efforts on low-income neighborhoods, and fewer restrictions against doing so.
Hodnett says the Vigilant platform is neutral, and doesn’t police the data it helps distribute for issues like income or race disparities. He also emphasized that the repossession business, where he himself used to work, hasn’t been materially changed by the introduction of license-plate readers. He says that the repo industry’s “spotter cars” do the same thing they used to do: checking up on vehicle owners’ last-known addresses. Now, they just have a more efficient way of scanning for other potentially repossessable cars along the way.
(Musgrave, on the other hand, reported that “spotter cars” are often sent to locations like commercial parking lots, looking for cars in default.)
While this public-private partnership has often helped police solve crimes and lenders repossess many vehicles, there’s a lack of consistent state laws to prevent local police from accessing billions of commercially-gathered license-plate scans, spanning back years. This can have a particularly harmful effect on low-income communities. “It always raises questions when you blend private companies with inherently public police functions,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at ACLU. “At the end of the day, private companies are governed by a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, which is often incompatible with criminal justice.”