The Orlando Police Department could soon have access to a massive database of license plate numbers of cars collected by privately owned cameras across the country. City council members on Monday approved a request by OPD to purchase access to a commercial database operated by Vigilant Solutions, a company that sells license plate reader hardware, such as mobile and mounted cameras.


The deal will allow Orlando police to search for wanted vehicles using a network of cameras linked to the company. On its website, Vigilant Solutions boasts more than 5 billion plate detections nationwide by cameras in its network of private subscribers and says millions more are added monthly. The price of the database is $49,000 a year, which will come out of the Police Department’s budget.


OPD Chief Orlando Rolón said the database will help law enforcement more efficiently locate vehicles associated with crimes or missing people, and pose little privacy risk since license plate numbers aren’t protected information. “Personally, I believe that any tool in the wrong hands is obviously an issue, even for me personally, privacy is very important,” Rolón said. “What we need when it comes to this type of technology is that missing child, that potential murderer, that potential terrorist that may be found or identified through this type of technology.”


It’s unclear whether other agencies in Central Florida use the database. A spokeswoman for Vigilant Solutions said the company does not comment on contracts with agencies or companies that have access to its products.


Rolón said the alert OPD would receive from Vigilant Solutions when a wanted vehicle passes by one of its cameras would include a photograph of the car, which police must confirm has the same license plate as the one on their hot list before investigating it. License plate readers have piqued concern among civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue that the cameras pose privacy threats because they collect and store data from every car that passes them, not just those involved in crimes. Cameras owned by private companies pose an added risk of having loose oversight — or none at all, according to the ACLU.


“If the Orlando Police Department is in fact requesting access to [a] private commercial database of license plate information compiled by private companies, then the need for clear regulations is absolutely necessary,” Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “In most cases, private companies make this information available to police departments with little to no oversight or privacy protections.”


Lt. Jay Draisin, who oversees OPD’s crime center and forensics, said the cameras capture license plate numbers, the time the vehicle passes and the location of the vehicle, but OPD is only alerted when cars that are on a “hot list” are spotted. OPD will also be able to search specific areas, as long as there is a clear law enforcement purpose for doing so, he said.


Draisin noted that police already search databases, including the Florida Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center, to determine if a vehicle is linked to a criminal case. The Vigilant Solutions system will do that automatically any time a wanted vehicle drives past a camera in the network. “The process is the same; it’s just a lot less manpower,” he said.


Rolón said OPD does not have access to information on which private companies in Central Florida use cameras that feed into the database. He said the technology is becoming common among car repossession agencies, tow truck companies and at malls and port authorities around the country.


OPD has tested license plate readers more than once, but has not purchased its own plate-reading cameras. Most recently, the agency in May tried out mobile readers that attach to officers’ vehicles and snap photos of any car they pass. The testing wasn’t announced publicly and it’s unclear how many vehicles were photographed. Draisin said the testing was done to evaluate the system and no one was arrested based on information obtained from the mobile cameras. “That wasn’t the purpose of it at the time,” he said.


In the past, OPD tested a different system in its auto theft unit to help locate stolen cars. The cameras weren’t deployed department-wide and were not purchased after testing, Draisin said. Earlier this year, the University of Central Florida announced that it was adding license plate readers to all entrances and exits on campus.


David Kruckenberg, an attorney with Washington, D.C.-based civil rights non-profit the New Civil Liberties Alliance, who is representing a Coral Gables man in a privacy lawsuit against the South Florida city for its use of plate-reading cameras, said the problem with archiving license plate data is the potential that a law enforcement agency could use them to track a vehicle’s movements over time.


Rolón said OPD would only use the database for specific law enforcement purposes and mainly to aid in felony crimes, not minor cases like suspended driver’s licenses.


David Frakt, an Orlando criminal defense attorney, disagreed with the argument that tracking license plate numbers could violate privacy laws, since “the very purpose of a license plate is to identify the car and to be public, and in fact, it can be a crime to conceal one’s license plate.” But using a database compiled by private companies does raise concern of the accuracy of information provided to law enforcement, since it’s unclear how the data is compiled and managed, he said. “We have no idea really who put it in, why they put it in,” Frakt said. “I think there’s potential there for misinformation to be put in the hands of police and the police would act on it.” When police pull over a car, they have “extraordinary powers … to search the car, to search the occupants,” Frakt said. “So you really want police to be acting on reliable information if they’re going to be exercising those powers.”


Kruckenberg called the commercial database “incredibly concerning” because of the potential for the data collection methods of private companies to lack transparency. “[W]hen a city is gathering the data, you hope that there’s some sort of control. And if not… your citizens can do something about it,” Kruckenberg said. “But, when its a private actor, it’s a lot less transparent. … We don’t know what they’re doing, we don’t know how they’re storing the data and we don’t know how long they’re storing the data.”


Mary Alice Johnson, a spokeswoman for Vigilant Solutions, said there is “no expectation of privacy” for the information captured by the company’s cameras. “License plate data is inherently transparent, as a license plate is required by state law to be visibly displayed on every vehicle,” she said. Though license plate readers may seem like an encroachment on personal privacy, Frakt said the courts haven’t found that the technology violates any laws. “[I]t may seem like our privacy in public spaces is diminishing and that is true. As of right now there’s nothing to stop to the police from doing that,” Frakt said. “Even though it’s a little scary from a big brother perspective, I’m not sure that there is a legal basis to stop it. It’s more a question of, is this the kind of society we want to be?”

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Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel