The NYPD is paying $442,500 for a three-year subscription to Vigilant Solutions' database of 2.2 billion license plate images of cars across America, according to Ars Technica. Advocates in law enforcement say the tool will help find suspects faster. Privacy advocates contend it could dramatically increase the police's ability to catalog and predict the movements of everyday Americans.
When I rode along with repossession agents for an article ("Scan Artist") two years ago, I was overwhelmed at the speed and efficiency of plate scan technology. The Cleveland repossessors I met, like most repo companies in the US, suck up millions of plates per month and feed them into the Vigilant database.
For those who don't know how Vigilant's license plate recognition works:
1. Over 3,000 repossession agencies across the country continuously take images of license plates in parking lots, driveways (in some states), and roadways. (Law enforcement agencies around the US also scan plates, but their records make up a tiny fraction of the database.)
2. Repossession agents often capture an individual car many times a month in multiple locations. Data on any specific car is often so detailed that it helps repossessors and law enforcement agents predict the future location of the vehicle at a certain time of day based on the historical scans.
2. Data from the repo database flows to a national law-enforcement database, to which local agencies can subscribe. Using out-of-state license plate scans, police can predict where a suspect will be based on historical records over a wide geographical region. (According to Vigilant, police must have "permissible purpose" to access records.)