In the last post in the Know Your Data series, I discussed how Uber can use its vast database of your personal trips against your personal interests. (This does not preclude the possibility that they use the data for your benefit.) It turns out that something more ominous is at foot… a number of news outlets have just published investigative reports about a company known as Vigilant Solutions (EFF, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, etc.).
To understand what this company is doing, let's start with Google's Street View. A lot of people like and use this feature of Google Maps. Google compiles this innovative view by having a fleet of vehicles driving around the country equipped with cameras. This product itself was controversial as well - as private citizens are sometimes caught on camera. Also, German authorities discovered that Google cars were quietly collecting data on people's Wifi networks, including passwords.
Now, others have copied the Google Street View strategy. They have a fleet of cars driving around taking pictures which populate a database. In the case of Vigilant, they install their cameras on police cars, and take pictures of your car license plates. These license plate numbers are tagged with the location and time at which the snapshots were taken.
Your license plate number is extremely easy to link to your identity so in essence, your location at any moment in time is being captured, without your knowledge, and traded between businesses and governments, with neither your consent nor your knowledge.
In fact, the police forces who are Vigilant customers have signed agreements to not disclose any information about Vigilant products, and they also signed agreements to allow Vigilant to store your data permanently for commercial use.
With enough cameras in motion, it is possible to compile an excellent database of where every car's location is at any time. As with most "Big Data" applications, there may be errors - the driver of a given car at a point in time may not be the registered owner of the car. But in the vast majority of cases, the driver will be the owner. Further, face recognition technology will make it possible to identify the driver directly.
Given a license plate number, the Vigilant database really does know a lot about your movement, and it will only become more detailed as they add cameras.
Who might want access to such data?
What much of the public seem to miss about mass surveillance data is that such data can and are being used to your disadvantage.
How do the local police forces fund the investment in cameras? The investigators at EFF learn that they use the Vigilant data to catch people on traffic violations, and they all but blackmail these drivers by telling them they could avoid further trouble by paying the fines on the spot -- with a 25% surcharge for the convenience. The entire 25% surcharge goes to Vigilant.
Some drivers get caught not for present violations. The license plate number links them back to past due violations. And they get all but blackmailed into paying the 25% surcharge.
The Atlantic article mentioned insurers as one of the key clientele of Vigilant. Imagine you live in a safe neighborhood which lowers your auto insurance premium. You fall in love with this girl who lives in a poor neighborhood and so your car is frequently parked there. Your auto insurer finds this out from the license plate databases. Do you think your insurance rate is going up or down next year?
You have been approached by a recruiter because some company is trying to poach you. In order to attend interviews, you go out of the office during office hours. When you return to the office after the interview, your manager drops by your desk and wants to know why you were spotted in front of the other company’s building.
Data collection has gone rogue. Companies like Vigilant Solutions are not bothering to ask citizens whether they can collect their data and sell their data. They are not asking, they are not seeking permission, and they are doing this secretively. This last point makes it clear that they have something to hide.