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.
License Plate Scanning System Turns Police Into Debt Collectors
They could also get data from existing or future traffic camera systems. The robocops could pull over suspects, who would be presented with the option to pay their fine on the spot or have a warrant issued for their immediate arrest.
Both these scenarios would be extremely lucrative. They would enable police departments to collect more fines with fewer cops. This would save a huge amount of time and money expended on the current legal bureaucracy that involves ticketing and the court system.
But why should court and traffic fines and debt be given special treatment just because the technology that enables them to do so exists?
Why not employ these police robot ATMs to collect any debt. Debt collection companies could pay police departments to serve as their agents. The money would be used by the police to make us all safer by funding more police robot ATMs.
And why scan only license plates? It makes sense to scan, recognize and log the face of every passenger, pedestrian and bicyclist as well and run them through the databases to fish for outstanding arrest warrants or unpaid fines.
Of course, in the future, far more people will ride in self-driving cars owned by a service, rather than drive their own cars. So it’s only fair for police to install cameras in those cars to scan the face of every passenger with a handy credit card reader to process payment on the spot. The Ubers and Lyfts of the future could collect 25 percent of the fees or fines or taxes levied against passengers and that could subsidize their business.
On second thought, that’s not fair, either. Why should riders be face-scanned while drivers are not? Why not pass a law that puts a camera and a credit card reader into every car dashboard?
And why rely on the sensors from robot car ATMs and traffic cameras? The most efficient way is to require devices that record everything every driver does, the speed, the turns, the braking and how all this complies with traffic and parking laws.
When the car stops and the engine is turned off the doors would automatically lock until the driver pays the fee or fine. If they refused, the automatic driving feature of the car could bring the driver to the nearest police station for arrest.
Once that equipment is installed, of course the insurance companies will want to base their rates entirely on driving data.
All this could be sold to the public under the guise of safety, fairness and the rule of law. After all, if you can’t pay the fine, don’t cross the line.
If you like this future, you’ll definitely want to support what’s happening in Kyle, Texas.
If you don’t like this future, you’ll want to actively oppose it.
There’s no reason to believe that funneling court data to a private company, using police cars to send location information on all cars to a private company, and using the police as debt collectors is as far as this goes. This is a slope—a steep and slippery one.
If new technology makes a change efficient and saves money, it can be convincingly argued that these savings enable police resources to be used for protecting and serving the public. If that’s the argument we accept, then all this and much worse will happen. We’ll take one step in this direction, grow used to it and then blithely take the next step down the slope.
What we really need are new laws that ban police departments from collecting money for any reason on principle.
We also need laws that ban police departments from harvesting license plate and facial data for private companies.
Because if we don’t, a new kind of computer-automated police state is just down the road.