License Plate Technology at Risk Post-Snowden

A New York teenager upset after a fight with her mom called a family friend she thought would drive her to an uncle’s Boston home. Instead, he took her to a Maryland hotel for sex.

Eleven days later, police tracked down the 40-year-old man and the teen in August 2012, helped by a massive database of license-plate images that located his vehicle.

That investigative tool may be limited in the future. Privacy concerns, which redoubled after former contractor Edward Snowden exposed vast U.S. surveillance programs, are restraining the technology. Bills in more than a dozen states would limit license-plate tracking. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security canceled a plan to buy access to such records following criticism from privacy advocates.

“The story is the same every place we go,” said Chris Metaxas, chief executive officer of a unit of Livermore, California-based Vigilant Solutions, whose database helped find the New York teen. “What they’re trying to do with these laws is really censor data.”

Critics say they don’t oppose the technology; they just want to make sure it’s not being abused. They are seeking time limits on the records and assurances that Americans aren’t being monitored as they travel to places that might include abortion clinics, mosques or their secret love nests.

“If scanning continues to proliferate, with the click of a button someone can pretty much sketch our travel patterns, where you are and when, without a warrant and without a subpoena,” said Todd Weiler, a Republican state senator in Utah, one of six states that limit license-plate data. “It’s a little creepy.”

‘Back Door’

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has worked to restrict the databases, isn’t trying to prevent records from being tapped to solve crimes, said Kade Crockford, a project director with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The real issue is whether these are being used as a warrantless back door to track every single motorist,” Crockford said.

The ACLU and other organizations have had some success constraining governments’ use of the technology.

Arkansas, California, Maine, Utah, New Hampshire and Vermont already limit the use of license-plate-reader technology or the retention of data collected by the devices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ office in Denver.

Fifteen states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland, were considering similar measures this year, according to the group. Some of the bills were diluted after law enforcement agencies praised the technology’s value.

Utah Lawsuit

Last year, Utah passed a law, sponsored by Weiler, that bars police from keeping license-plate data for more than nine months and private companies from holding onto images for more than 30 days without a court order, the state senator said.

Vigilant Solutions and its Digital Recognition Network unit in February sued the state in federal court in Utah. Vigilant is arguing that Utah’s measure infringes on its right to free speech, including freedom to take pictures in public.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE and part of Homeland Security, dropped a proposal to access or buy databases for tracking license plates nationwide after criticism from groups such as the ACLU.

The customs agency had planned to use the data to help locate and arrest “absconders and criminal aliens,” according to a federal document seeking companies’ proposals.

The solicitation was posted without ICE leadership’s awareness, Gillian Christensen, a deputy press secretary for the customs agency, said last month. She said in an e-mail yesterday that she didn’t have information on whether the solicitation would be reposted.

GPS Technology

The databases’ customers include police, insurers and auto-repossession companies, some of which use vehicle-mounted cameras to snap photos of license plates and record their locations with global-positioning technology. Images also can be collected by mobile devices or stationary cameras.

Mvconnect LLC’s Mvtrac division, which competes with Vigilant Solutions, has the images sent to company servers. Customers receive hits on current or past locations of vehicles being sought, said Scott Jackson, CEO of the Palatine, Illinois- based company.

The technology is no different than writing down license-plate numbers seen on the street or taking pictures with a mobile phone, Jackson said. His company’s database contains more than 1 billion images, he said.

“At some point, the public is going to realize technology is increasing at a lightning-fast pace,” he said. “Unless you turn your phone off and you’re on a hill somewhere in an outhouse, you really can’t hide.”

Database Market

While the size of the small, emerging market for license-plate data isn’t available, Jackson said his company had $10 million in data-related sales last year, which he estimates will more than double to $25 million by 2016.

U.S. sales of products tied to the market -- including cameras that capture the images and software used to identify vehicles -- may reach about $80 million this year, said Paul Everett, security portfolio director at IHS Inc., a research company based in Englewood, Colorado. That market may grow to $105 million by 2017, he said.

Companies including St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M Co. and a unit of Rome-based Finmeccanica SpA, also sell license-plate-recognition technology.

The U.S. has been “a bit of a difficult market,” said Everett, who says the U.K. has been more open. “There are groups that believe it unjustly infringes on people’s privacy and that does play a role in the U.S. market.”

Maryland Apartment

The technology has been used to respond to alerts for abducted children, and to find vehicles and people involved in crimes such as homicides, said David Roberts, a senior program manager with the Alexandria, Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police.

It was Vigilant Solutions’ data that pointed officers to a Maryland apartment where Edgar Daniel Mazariegos-Cifuentes and the girl were found, according to a company press release.

The 15-year-old girl from Monroe, New York, said the man forced her to have sex with him at the hotel in Silver Spring, Maryland, and several more times during the 11 days they were in the state, according to a Justice Department press release.

Mazariegos-Cifuentes, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year after pleading guilty to transporting a minor to engage in sexual activity, according to the Justice Department.

The databases “really do help in locating vehicles associated not just with missing persons, but also wanted people and stolen vehicles,” said Elena Russo, a spokeswoman for the Maryland state police. “They are truly a great investigative tool.”

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