Who Has The Right to Track You?

As states begin to rein in mass surveillance, corporations argue that they have a right to collect data.

David Sirota

Private companies use automated cameras to gather license plate information and track cars. In Utah, two companies claim they have a constitutional right to take these photographs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Do corporations have a legal right to track your car? If you think that is a purely academic question, think again. Working with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, states are considering laws to prevent private companies from continuing to mass photograph license plates. 

'This is the same argument that the NSA made in the face of public outcry about its collection of telephone metadata.'

This is one of the backlashes to the news about mass surveillance. However, this backlash is now facing legal pushback from the corporations who take the photographs and then sell the data gleaned from the images.

In a lawsuit against the state of Utah, Digital Recognition Network, Inc. and Vigilant Solutions are attempting to appropriate the ACLU’s own pro-free speech arguments for themselves. They argue that a recent Utah law banning them from using automated cameras to collect images, locations and times of license plates is a violation of their own free speech rights. Indeed, in an interview, DRN’s counsel Michael Carvin defends this practice by noting, Everyone has a First Amendment right to take these photographs and disseminate this information.” 

He argues that a license plate is an inherently public piece of information.

The only purpose of license plate information is to identify a vehicle to members of the public,” he says. The government has no problem with people taking pictures of license plates in a particular location. But for some irrational reason it has a problem with people taking high speed photographs of those license plates.”

The analogy to an individual’s right to take photos only goes so far, though. Vigilant’s website notes that DRN fuels a national network of more than 550 affiliates,” its tracking technology is used in every major metropolitan area” and it captures data on over 50 million vehicles each month.”

This is a complicated area where we are going to need to carefully balance First Amendment rights of corporations versus individuals privacy rights,” says ACLU attorney Catherine Crump. The mere fact that an individual has a First Amendment right doesn’t mean that right is unlimited. There are circumstances under which the government is free to regulate speech.”

Crump cited the Fair Credit Reporting Act and laws regulating the dissemination of health information as examples of legal privacy-related restrictions of speech rights.

One could argue that the privacy implications of a private individual taking a picture of a public place is sufficiently less than a company collecting millions of license plate images,” Crump says. Especially with technology becoming more widespread and databases going back in time, there may be justification for regulation.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that DRN’s own website boasted to its corporate clients that it can combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars … with household income and other valuable information” so companies can pinpoint consumers more effectively.” Yet, in announcing its lawsuit, DRN and Vigilant argue that their methods do not violate individual privacy because the data collected, stored or provided to private companies (and) to law enforcement … is anonymous, in the sense that it does not contain personally identifiable information.”

In response, Crump says: This is the same argument that the NSA made in the face of public outcry about its collection of telephone metadata, The argument was essentially, we’re not collecting information about people, we are collecting info about telephone numbers. But every telephone number is associated with an individual, just like a license plate is.”

The courts could follow corporate personhood precedents and strengthen First Amendment protections for private firms. Alternately, the courts could more narrowly rule on whether individuals’ license plate information is entitled to any minimal privacy protections.

Either way, the spat epitomizes how the collision of free speech rights, the desire for private and the expansion of data-collecting technology is raising huge questions about what isand is notpublic.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.