Plates of interest. Hot lists. Geo-fences. Intelligence resource. Never heard of the Vermont Justice Information Sharing System, either? Get to know the acronym, for VJISS is working with local, county, state, and federal police agencies "to deploy a first in the nation statewide License Plate Reader (LPR) data sharing system."
“Plates of interest” are license plate numbers that denote a car that’s been stolen or an owner who’s a sex offender – or maybe something else. “Hot lists” are watch lists of “plates of interest;” they can contain “any set of plate data, from terrorist watch lists, to stolen vehicles, to parking scofflaws.” “Geo-fences” establish boundaries around areas where people (maybe parolees) aren’t supposed to be. “Intelligence resource” is the mountain of information that digital cameras utilizing infrared lighting can build as they snap a thousand photos an hour of license plates on cars whizzing by at speeds up to 150 mph.
What happens to all the data? It’s put into a centralized Department of Public Safety database at VJISS and stored for four years. The data includes the dates, times, and locations of the vehicles identified by the plate image captured by the high-speed cameras, which can operate at any time of day or night in any kind of weather.
Who will utilize the data, and why? ”LPR data is most likely to be utilized by law enforcement officers; nevertheless, there may be additional, foreseeable users of LPR data,” a VJISS report says. Requests for using the data beyond normal purposes “must be made to the Vermont FUSION Center.” The Vermont Fusion Center is in Williston. It’s one of 72 such centers nationwide, fostered by the federal Department of Homeland Security to gather and exchange information among government agencies – from the FBI and CIA down to county sheriffs and local police.
This glimpse inside the fashioning of the functional equivalent of a statewide surveillance system comes through responses to the ACLU-VT’s public records request of Vermont police agencies for information about LPR systems in the state. The documents reveal a well-coordinated plan to use mainly federal funds (many of the dollars come from the Department of Homeland Security) to buy cameras and computers that, because of their high-tech capabilities, serve as a motor vehicle tracking system. By tapping in a license plate number, the police can see the date, time, and location of every time the vehicle was “captured” by an LPR.
The documents received as part of our public records request reveal that the infrastructure necessary for the system has already been built. Nearly two dozen police agencies have the cameras. The state police have set up a database to receive the information collected by the agencies and send back out hot lists.
While one document we obtained, Operation of License Plate Readers for Law Enforcement Agencies Accessing the Vermont Justice Information Sharing System, provides guidelines for access to and dissemination of LPR data (as well as tips for the care of LPR cameras and other operational details), guidelines aren’t enough. The public needs to be informed of the information being collected about us. And the legislature needs to discuss whether the collection and retention of such detailed information about individuals’ movements is justified.
The stated rationale for the system is this: “to remove unregistered vehicles, unlicensed drivers, wanted persons and vehicles from our roadways.” The ACLU’s worry is that with any high-tech system, “mission creep” will set in. A system meant to stop crime could morph into a system that tracks everyone. That’s why we’ve joined 37 other ACLU affiliates in coordinated public records requests to learn more about LPR systems.
Read our public records requests, and the responses.