Fort Worth company front and center in privacy debateFebruary 28, 2014
Automated license plate readers are big business for Digital Recognition. Courtesy photo
A. Lee Graham
A year after Utah passed a law limiting the use of automated license plate readers, a Fort Worth firm that makes those products has sued the state and asked a judge for a permanent injunction against the law.
It’s the latest skirmish in a much larger battle pitting private businesses against legal restrictions that some believe cripple their right to free enterprise.
According to the lawsuit, The Utah Automatic License Plate Reader System Act, which restricts the use of such technology to police officers and parking enforcement agents in the state of Utah, infringes on constitutionally protected speech and causes the companies imminent and irreparable injury. The companies are calling for preliminary injunctive relief from the law. From drones to the media firestorm stirred by former CIA employee Edward Snowden, the debate puts privacy rights in the crosshairs.
“We believe the lawsuit is very, very sound,” said Chris Metaxas, CEO of Fort Worth-based Digital Recognition Network Inc. and Vigilant Solutions, its California sister company, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Metaxas lashed back after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation last April restricting how such surveillance technology can be used statewide, ostensibly prohibiting the sale and use of the very products Metaxas and his approximately 50-employee company manufacture.
The law also limits how long governmental entities can store data collected by readers. Metaxas said the data help police solve car thefts and aid the auto finance market in tracking vehicles.
“We’re taking a photo continuously of license plates, digitizing them and matching them against a database of assignments that those [car repossession] agents put into the system. It makes tracking so much easier,” Metaxas said.
But not so fast, say those critical of such data collection. They say the technology is overstepping boundaries as an increasingly intrusive presence.
“The overwhelming majority of people who are tracked are completely innocent of any wrongdoing,” said Catherine Crump, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
“One can reasonably ask why it is any of the government’s business to access records tracking the movements of innocent people on a massive scale,” Crump said.
The answer is simple, Metaxas said: helping police and insurance companies find stolen cars.
“There is no expectation of privacy” with license plates, Metaxas said. “All we’re doing is taking a picture of something in public view like anyone would take a picture of a tree.”
A University of Texas at Arlington professor said he understands both sides of the argument.
“On one hand, they have a point about it being public,” said Mark Tremayne, assistant professor of broadcast communication at UT Arlington. “But on the other hand, does it go against people’s expectation for privacy?”
That awaits review in U.S. District Court in Utah, where Digital Recognition and Vigilant Solutions filed the lawsuit on Feb. 13. The court’s ruling could be far-reaching as more than 10 other states are considering restrictions on such data collections. Texas is not among those states.
Attempts by the Fort Worth Business Press to seek comment from Herbert and Sean D. Reyes, Utah attorney general, who are named as defendants in the suit, were unsuccessful.
Utah State Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) sponsored the legislation and heightened awareness among other legislators regarding automated data collection.
Metaxas has defended his company’s products, saying they have helped police recover more than 300,000 stolen vehicles since it was founded five years ago. Still, he realizes that the issue comes in a nation increasingly aware of privacy issues after Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency had collected telephone records, emails and other information on millions of Americans not suspected of criminal activity.
But Metaxas is confident that his case will prevail.
“This is our business. We were always sure from the start that photographing is a protected First Amendment right and we have the right to photograph things that are public. The act of restricting that violates our company’s First Amendment rights.”