The Atlantic today had a fairly excited article about a new company named Vigilant Solutions and the privacy question it proposes, “What information can a company collect on you and sell to the Police?” Vigilant is a law enforcement contractor that maintains a private database of car license plate photos and their location data, collected from license plate readers it gives to police departments. Police get free plate readers, Vigilant gets the data. Ultimately the article was furious at this “unprecedented violation of privacy” for profit. I’m just not sure it’s a particularly questionable program, and it certainly has precedent.
Legally it passes the sniff test. I can’t see how a program like this would be struck down in a court. It’s basically license plate Street View, visual information collected on public roads, and your car is in the public space so it seems like a stretch to expect license plate privacy. The main question of this is it okay for company to possess data collected on the public location of a car based on license plate pings. We’ve seen plenty of cases with courts siding with photographers in areas where privacy in the public space is questioned, most notably over the photographing of conduct of police officers. Is this a case of eavesdropping or stalking? Probably not, it’s indiscriminate automated record collection. If the police wanted to follow you, they could already do that.
This reminds me of the European “Right to be Forgotten” rule, which requires search companies to remove listings on the requests of individuals involved in the listing. Generally the “Right to be Forgotten” rule in the U.S. is to me rightly considered to be a form of censorship. When links or articles enter the public record it’s unreasonable for an individual to request the censorship of privately held information on this public record. I’ve always considered this roughly equivalent of believing you have a right to your reputation, which disregards that reputations are just information held by individuals on other individuals. In the case of the plate readers is it reasonable at all to say an individual (in this case a company) can’t hold information about where your car is on public roads? I really don’t think so.
Furthermore as the push for police body camera adoption continues it’s not out of the question to expect them to be used for data collection as much as if not more so than police accountability. As technology advances more and more, particularly in the field of facial recognition the extent at which you can expect data to be collected about you in the public space goes up even more. However, chances are you’re already carrying around a smartphone, searching on the internet, and using any number of tools where you give up privacy for connivence. The world isn’t and never was a private as you thought, might as well get used to it.