License Plate Scanning System Turns Police Into Debt Collectors

NEWS ANALYSIS: Texas police cars now use license plate scanners to hunt for court fine deadbeats and they can take payment on the spot -- with the vehicle data collected and held by a private company.

Deadbeat Scanner 2

Texas passed a law just last year allowing police departments to install credit card readers in squad cars. The idea was to enable cops to collect unpaid court fines instead of arresting people for the unpaid fines.

Police in Kyle, Texas, are now automating the identification of court fine deadbeats using scanners that automatically read and process all visible license plates, according to a report on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website.

The license plate readers, access to a database of license plate data and sophisticated software tools, are provided to the police by a company called Vigilant Solutions in exchange for an additional 25 percent fee. That's right: people can pay the court fine plus 25 percent more, all of which goes to Vigilant, a private company. To the police and courts, all this equipment is "free."

As police drive around the scanner reads license plates and pings an alert when it locates the vehicle of a court-fine scofflaw. Police pull the vehicle over and give the occupants the options of paying their unpaid court fines on the spot or going to jail.

If the scanner flags a parked car, the police can place a notice on the windshield that's like a ticket, but is really an order to go to the Vigilant Solutions' website and pay the fine.

They're calling it a win-win-win situation. The court gets more fines paid. The jails get less crowded. And Vigilant gets paid a fortune—in user fees essentially—that are sought out and collected by the police.

But it gets worse. The police don't access Vigilant's database. Vigilant gets all the data from Guadalupe County, which is where the city of Kyle is located. Vigilant gets to keep and use the personal and legal data provided for what the EFF calls "nearly unlimited commercial use." Vigilant gets to keep and use the data even if or when the contract expires.

Meanwhile, the police are constantly scanning for plates. All license plates, not just the ones flagged as belonging to a scofflaw, are tagged with location, time and other data, and all that data is fed back into the Vigilant database.

This includes cars in traffic and also unoccupied parked cars. As the EFF points out, "the information can reveal personal information, such as where you go to church, what doctors you visit, and where you sleep at night."

Both the court and the police are funneling private and personal data on citizens to a private company, which is then using that data to get paid, riding on the back of court fines and enforced and collected by the police.

In other words, a private company is using taxpayer-funded government agencies to harvest private data about the public and is getting paid to do it.

An Awfully Slippery Slope

Needless to say, this whole arrangement is made possible by new technology.

This situation raises some critical questions. If today's technology makes it OK to use the police as debt collectors for the courts and to use government departments and agencies for the harvesting of personal data for a private company, what will tomorrow's technology enable?

For starters, it's clear that self-driving cars will enable this current scenario to be automated. Self-driving squad cars could drive around scanning plates and when they get a ping, pull over the motorist.

A computer voice could then command a vehicle occupant to use an ATM-like kiosk on the outside of the car to pay their fine. If they refuse, the self- driving car could follow the scofflaw while calling for backup by human cops, who could then make an arrest.

Since that works so well, it makes sense for these self-driving cop cars to scan for other traffic violations, such as speeding, illegal left turns and tailgating.