Could License Plate Reader Tech Get Sketchier? Texas Is On It

How deals with LPR firm Vigilant Solutions turn cops into roaming debt sharks.

The state of Texas happened upon a great racket last year in the form of H.B. 121, a new state law effectively turning cops into debt collectors, except with arrest powers and, you know, guns. It does this by legalizing the installation of credit card readers in cop cars. The idea is that drivers detained during traffic stops can be given the option to pay any overdue court fees that might be attached to their name rather than go to jail. Ominous, but it probably keeps some people out of cuffs.

Where this gets really creepy is when a company that calls itself Vigilant Solutions enters the picture. Vigilant is in the business of license plate recognition technology, providing police departments with not just cameras and software, but access to a database containing some 2.8 billion plate scans. All of this it provides at "no cost."

Except that it doesn't. A post Tuesday from Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maas lays out two highly sketchy ways that Vigilant recoups its costs and probably a lot more, both of which are enshrined in "warrant redemption" program contracts Vigilant has with law enforcement agencies in Guadalupe County and the City of Kyle.

Here's the first, according to Maas:

The government agency in turn gives Vigilant access to information about all its outstanding court fees, which the company then turns into a hot list to feed into the free ALPR systems. 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. 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.

So, cops that might otherwise be busting speeders and dangerous drivers are repurposed as debt sharks. As part of its deal with Guadalupe County, Vigilant even gets to send out its own debt collecting contractors. So far that just entails putting notices on people's cars, but that's a whole lot of "you" being passed to a company named "Vigilant."

Here's the second thing:

Buried in the fine print of the contract with Vigilant is a clause that says the company also get to keep a copy of all the license-plate data collected by the agency, even after the contract ends. According the company's usage and privacy policy, Vigilant "retains [license plate recognition] data as long as it has commercial value." Vigilant can sell or license that information to other law enforcement bodies and potentially to private companies such as insurance firms and repossession agencies.

How is this legal? The aforementioned law says that an agency, "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." Which is kind of weird given that the service is the same for every "customer," regardless of what the actual court fee is, yet Vigilant is collecting 25 percent of said fee rather than a flat rate.

"We believe that a 25% fee is not reasonable and doesn't recover just the direct costs, since the fee is actually paying for the whole ALPR system," Maas writes, "including surveillance capabilities unrelated to warrant redemption, such as access to the giant LEARN-NVLS database and software suite."

Data is money.