A growing number of cameras — hundreds around Los Angeles, thousands nationwide — are engaged in a simple pursuit: Taking pictures of license plates.
The digital photos, automatically snapped by cameras mounted on cars and street poles and then tagged with time and location, are transmitted to massive databases running on remote computer servers. Cops can then search those databases to track the past whereabouts of drivers.
Law enforcement officials say the data collection is invaluable for tracking down stolen cars and catching fugitives.
But such databases are also being built by private firms, which can sell access to anyone willing to pay, such as lenders, repo workers and private investigators. That is raising worries among privacy advocates and lawmakers, who say the fast-growing industry is not only ripe for conflicts of interest but downright invasive.
"What they're doing crosses the line," said state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who is pushing legislation to rein in the industry.
Hill agrees that license plate data can aid law enforcement, but believes that the industry needs restrictions. He said he's worried that partnerships between police and for-profit data firms could result in cops doing the bidding of insurance companies and repo firms.
His legislation would ban public agencies from sharing data they collect with private entities, prohibit license plate scanners from coming onto private property without consent and make it easier for privacy lawsuits to be filed against data collectors.
To demonstrate the power of the databases, Hill hired a private detective to track his wife. Rather than tailing her, the detective paid for access to license data that showed Hill's wife parked at a Sacramento gym more than 100 miles from their home.
In another case, a San Leandro, Calif., man filed a public records request and learned his cars were photographed more than 100 times, including one image that showed his daughters in the driveway.
Hill's legislation faces an uphill battle. A similar bill in California died amid intense lobbying by law enforcement officials and the industry in 2012. In Utah, lawmakers backed off legislation restricting commercial collection of license plate data after being sued by one of the leading license-data collectors, Vigilant Solutions in Livermore, Calif. Like other data firms, Vigilant claims free-speech rights to take photographs in public.
The industry is growing rapidly. A 2010 study showed a third of large police departments using plate readers. In 2012, the most recent data available, a survey found more than 70% of the nation's police departments had the scanners.
Vigilant in particular has seen its appeal among law enforcement officers grow because it can offer police departments access to a trove of more than 2 billion scans, maintained by an affiliated company, Digital Recognition Network. That database is fed by cameras attached to vehicles driven by repossession agents roving the nation's roadways.
The two companies have 160 employees. Vigilant reports having more than 3,500 law enforcement clients that either use the company's cameras or access its data. Digital Recognition Network has more than 250 customers. A Vigilant representative estimated that the entire industry brings in as much as $500 million a year.
Along with Vigilant, some of the other companies providing license plate scanning technology include Motorola, PlateSmart and PIPS Technology. Their law enforcement clients generally point to high-profile cases the technology helped solve.
Last month, police used license plate data to end a monthlong hunt for a man suspected of randomly firing at cars on Kansas City, Mo., highways. A woman who thought she was being followed reported the plate number. Cops plugged that into their system and quickly had the car's past locations. Within a day, a license plate scanner passed the car and got a hit.
"It's an important tool for law enforcement," Hill said. "But we need to be extremely vigilant to protect our right to privacy and the civil liberties we cherish."
It's unclear how many privately operated cameras operate in Los Angeles County. But the devices are used by many of the county's law enforcement agencies, including its two largest. The Sheriff's Department reported having 84 vehicles outfitted with plate readers, and 47 more in fixed locations. Half a dozen have been installed on the radar signs that warn drivers when they're speeding. A Los Angeles Police Department official said the agency had 240 car-mounted units and 30 fixed ones.
Last year, Vigilant Solutions offered police in Tempe, Ariz., license plate scanners for free. But there was a catch, according to a copy of the offer obtained by The Times.
To keep the freebies, the Tempe department had to go after at least 25 outstanding "Vigilant provided" warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies, which profit by going after warrants that result from people failing to pay municipal fines, said Brian Shockley, a vice president at Vigilant.
In the document, Vigilant assured the Tempe department that the offer was not an attempt to "unduly influence" its police work. But the company also warned that the free cameras would be taken away if the police department failed to meet its monthly quota.
"We look at a lot of different, creative ways to serve our clients," Shockley said. "Budgets and grant dollars are somewhat limited these days."
Shockley declined to answer questions about the Tempe proposal, calling it confidential. No agencies are currently working under this framework, Shockley said. He refused to provide a list of law enforcement departments that have hired his company.
He also declined to say whether the firm has made similar offers to other agencies.
A Tempe police official told The Times that his agency opted out of the unusual program. But Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the offer was concerning.
"We have no way of tracking what's going on in the private realm," she said. "All we have is the publicity statements these companies put out."
Law enforcement agencies have denied public records requests for license plate data, and private data collectors are not subject to such records requests.
"A lot of times," Lynch said, "they even have a clause that says law enforcement agencies aren't allowed to talk about their products without talking to the company first."
Vigilant's representatives say that tracking the movements of cars is not invasive. The data repo workers gather can be accessed by cops, but not the other way around. And the plate numbers, they argue, can't be matched up with their owners since federal law bans people from getting that information from the Department of Motor Vehicles. But that law allows more than a dozen exceptions — including one for licensed private investigators.
Privacy activists warn that tracking cars over time can reveal where people live, work, worship and who they associate with. A sudden change in someone's routine could hint at a breakup or an affair.
Vigilant's website downplays those concerns, describing license plate data as anonymous and little more than a series of letters and numbers. The data, the site says, tracks cars, not their drivers, and does not reveal with whom a person associates.
But the website for the firm's affiliated company, which caters to repo workers, strikes a different tone.
"Owners are typically within 1,000 feet of the vehicle, so find the vehicle and you find the customer," reads the site of Digital Recognition Network. "Quickly and efficiently pinpoint the most likely addresses from among the limitless possibilities returned by various data services, friends, associates, relatives, employers."