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The NYPD Is As Bad As The NSA: Uses License Plate Reader Database to Monitor Movements of Residents

The "Vigilant" contains over 2.2 billion location data points, and it is growing by almost a million data points per day. The database also isn’t limited to New York City, which means the NYPD can now monitor your car whether you live in New York or Miami or Chicago or Los Angeles. It also has a corrupting influence on its users: A police officer in Washington D.C. pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of cars near a gay bar and blackmailing the car’s owners.


(click to see full-size image)

Documents Uncover NYPD’s Vast License Plate Reader Database


Surveillance is about power. Vigilant gives the NYPD power to monitor our whereabouts.


By Mariko Hirose
Supporters of license plate readers are fond of saying that unless you’re a criminal, you needn’t fear the invasive technology. But those who adhere to that argument should consider just a few examples from around the country:

  • A police officer in Washington D.C. pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of cars near a gay bar and blackmailing the car’s owners.

  • The DEA contemplated using license plate readers to monitor people who were at a gun show. Since the devices can’t distinguish between those who are selling illegal guns and those who aren’t, a person’s presence at the gun show would have landed them in a DEA database.

  • A SWAT team in Kansas raided a man’s house where his wife, 7-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son lived based in part on the mass monitoring of cars parked at a gardening store. The man was held at gunpoint for two hours while cops combed through his home. The police were looking for a marijuana growing operation. They did not find that or any other evidence of criminal activity in the man’s house. With these stories firmly in mind, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s latest license plate reader discovery is all the more chilling.

Last year, we learned that the NYPD was hoping to enter into a multi-year contract that would give it access to the nationwide database of license plate reader data owned by the company Vigilant Solutions. Now, through a Freedom of Information Law request, the NYCLU has obtained the final version of the $442,500 contract and the scope-of-work proposal that gives a peek into the ever-widening world of surveillance made possible by Vigilant.
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Surveillance is about power. Vigilant gives the NYPD power to monitor our whereabouts and, by extension, our affiliations, interests, activities and beliefs.

The scope-of-work proposal explains how Vigilant vastly expands the NYPD’s surveillance capability beyond what was possible with its own license plate database. Known as the Domain Awareness System, it collects the license plate data scanned by the approximately 500 license plate readers operated by the NYPD and combines it with footage from cameras and other surveillance devices around the city. The NYPD holds on to the license plate data for at least five years regardless of whether a car triggers any suspicion.

The Vigilant database raises similar privacy concerns as the Domain Awareness System, but those concerns are greatly magnified because the Vigilant database is massive: It contains over 2.2 billion location data points, and it is growing by almost a million data points per day. The database also isn’t limited to New York City, which means the NYPD can now monitor your car whether you live in New York or Miami or Chicago or Los Angeles.

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