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License plate reading firm sues Utah, claiming new privacy laws curb free speech

By John Byrne
Friday, February 14, 2014 8:53 EDT
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In an odd twist on free speech rights, a firm which makes automated license plate readers is suing Utah for a law intended to protect drivers’ privacy.

Digital Recognition Network supplies machines that quickly read license plate numbers as drivers pass by. It posits that a new Utah law which bans license plate collection by private companies, effectively put it out of business in the state. The law was intended to keep data from falling into police hands without oversight, and is among the first by surveillance technology firms to argue against privacy laws invoking the First Amendment.

The Texas company fired back, arguing that collecting license plate numbers is free speech. The lawsuit draws upon a recent major Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. FEC, which overturned a law curbing corporate and union donations to political campaigns. In effect, the Court ruled that money is speech.

“The Texas company says it’s not a police agency – law enforcement already is exempt from the ban under Utah’s new law — nor can it access in bulk federally protected driver data that personally identifies the letters and numbers it collects from license plates in public,” the Associated Press reported Thursday. “The company said it only wants to find cars that have been stolen or repossessed, not to cull large swaths of data and incriminate people from their travel habits.”

At least 14 states are considering bills to curb  license plate readers, phone-records collection and drones, according to AP.

Vigilant mentions police action by name on its website.

“Data is cumbersome; intelligence is actionable,” the site says. “Vigilant Solutions’ products are designed to collect, organize and share data to credentialed law enforcement personnel, providing intelligence that is readily accessible and easy to use. This intelligence provides more efficient and effective law enforcement while enhancing officer safety.”

“People tend to invoke privacy and suspend judgment and skepticism,” Michael Carvin of Jones Day, a law firm representing the company and Vigilant Solutions Inc., a license-data network, was quoted as saying. “We don’t track people.”

Vigilant says that license plate readers have helped recover more than 300,000 stolen vehicles in the last five years. He didn’t supply his source to AP.

[Photo credit: Shutterstock]

 
 
 
 
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