NMA E-Newsletter #279: Spy vs. Spy

A couple weeks ago we wrote about what happens when the cameras and microphones are turned on those (law enforcement officers) who normally do the watching. Turns out they don’t like it much.

You know who also doesn’t like it? The private companies that partner with law enforcement agencies to help with the watching.

Vigilant Solutions is the largest aggregator of vehicle license plate data in the country. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies contract with Vigilant to access its database, which contains records on two billion license plates, complete with time stamps and GPS coordinates.

But Vigilant doesn’t want you to know that. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently uncovered the terms of Vigilant’s user agreement which essentially prohibits law enforcement personnel from disclosing details about their use of Vigilant’s “LEARN” database. Here’s an excerpt:

You shall not create, publish, distribute, or permit any written, electronically transmitted or other form of publicity material that makes reference to LEARN or this Agreement without first submitting the material to LEARN-NVLS and receiving written consent from LEARN-NVLS. This prohibition is specifically intended to prohibit users from cooperating with any media outlet to bring attention to LEARN or LEARN-NVLS. Breach this provision may result in LEARN-NVLS immediately termination of this Agreement upon notice to you [sic].

Vigilant isn’t the only spy company that prohibits users from talking about its products, nor is it even the most restrictive. The Harris Corporation, which makes a cell-phone snooping device known as a stingray, prevents law enforcement agencies from disclosing their use of the technology to the media or even to other governmental agencies. As a result, law enforcement agencies that use stingrays sometimes do so without a court warrant because they have interpreted the user agreement to mean they cannot even tell a judge of their intent to use the devices.

Likewise, law enforcement agencies are using the “user agreement” excuse to ignore public records requests from journalists investigating the use of stingray technology. Earlier this year, the ACLU described how the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department declined to provide documents or comment about its use of stingrays because “the acquisition or use of this technology comes with a strict non-disclosure requirement.” Other examples of police stonewalling can be found here.

So, in their quest for evermore invasive surveillance technology, public officials choose to kowtow to private companies rather than uphold the constitution and the rule of law.

These are public employees, paid with public dollars and using public money to acquire this technology, ostensibly to serve the public, but they’re not supposed to talk about their work to the public since a private company told them not to, because said private company doesn’t want the attention of the public?

It’s outrageous, and it threatens key tenets of our democracy: namely that public officials need to conduct their business with transparency and with accountability to the public.

Speaking of transparency and accountability, is there anything we can do to foster these two important, yet elusive, virtues in our public officials? Absolutely.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state public records laws were designed to keep the public informed about government operations and hold government accountable in the process. But they’re only effective if people use the tools they provide for obtaining government information.

That’s why the NMA has just released a new guide that tells you how to obtain information from government agencies through FOIA and public records requests. It offers easy-to-follow steps that you can use to find out such things as how a particular speed limit was established or how many accidents occurred at a specific red-light camera intersection. Or maybe even how many times your vehicle license plate has been photographed by an automated license plate reader.

View the guide here and sleuth around to find out what your local government or police department is up to. You may be surprised by what you find.

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