New License Plate Reader Could Make Texas Cops Debt Collectors, Too

The technology would allow a driver to pay for a fine on the spot, for a 25 percent fee.

By Hady MawajdehFebruary 2, 2016 2:56 pm| ,

New equipment for police officers can be pricey. When the Dallas Police Department decided to outfit their officers with body cameras, they had to sign a five-year, $4 million contract.

But one of the country’s largest suppliers of vehicle surveillance technology has recently brokered a deal with several law enforcement agencies in Texas that seems to cost police virtually nothing. Some say the deal turns police officers into mobile debt collectors, possibly collectors of other things, like personal information.

Dave Maass is an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that describes itself as defending civil liberties in the digital world.

Maass said automatic license plate readers are high-speed cameras that, in this case, will be mounted on police cars. They take photographs of the license plates and track where the license plate was read, to then turn into text for searching databases with information on stolen cars, outstanding warrants or fines.

“As you’re driving around, you can maybe spot people,” he says. “The bigger thing overall is to collect locational points on everybody and you’re able to put into this system and you’re able to predict where people are…. It’s a mass surveillance technology.”

Texas is the first place Maass has seen where the technology has been offered for police department use for free. He puts the pitch from Viligant Solutions, who owns the reader and software, to cops this way:

“You stop them, you run it through our credit card reader and we get 25 percent,” he says. “On top of that, we also get all of the data you collect. So as you’re driving around and you’re grabbing everybody in the city, We get that data, which we can then sell to other law enforcement agencies.”

Maass says the system involves both a license plate reader and a credit card reader in the police car. At a stop during which an officer found an offense for which a driver could be arrested, the driver would potentially face the choice of either going to jail or paying for the fine on the spot, with a 25 percent fee attached. But some drivers may not know they even have warrants out.

“Texas has a huge problem with these warrants,” he says. “It’s been documented quite a lot about how people don’t necessarily even know that they have these warrants out there.”