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IRS, other agencies award contracts to license plate tracking company

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

The Internal Revenue Service and other agencies awarded about $415,000 in contracts to a license plate-tracking company before Homeland Security leaders dropped a plan for similar work amid privacy complaints.

Federal offices such as the Forest Service and the Air Force's Air Combat Command chose Livermore, Calif.-based Vigilant Solutions to provide access to license plate databases or tools used to collect plate information, according to government procurement records compiled by Bloomberg.

Vigilant, a closely held company, has received such work since 2009. In February, Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ordered the cancellation of an immigration agency plan to buy access to national license plate data. While the technology can help solve crimes, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have said the mass collection of data infringes on the privacy of innocent people.

“Especially with the IRS, I don't know why these agencies are getting access to this kind of information,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy rights group. “These systems treat every single person in an area as if they're under investigation for a crime. That is not the way our criminal justice system was set up or the way things work in a democratic society.”

IRS officials awarded the company a $1,188 contract for “access to nationwide data” in June 2012, according to records available online. That contract ended in May, according to federal procurement records.

“The IRS uses a variety of investigative tools similar to other law-enforcement agencies to assist with criminal cases,” Eric Smith, an agency spokesman, wrote in an email. He declined to say how the agency used the records in its investigations.

The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, awarded Vigilant a contract valued at as much as $47,019 for its “CarDetector” system in August 2009, records show. The product scans and captures license plate numbers, compares the data to law enforcement lists of wanted vehicles and sends alerts when such vehicles are detected, according to the company's website.

Forestry officials also awarded the company a contract valued at about $7,500 in August for a subscription to its license plate database and other services, according to contracting records.

“License plate readers are helpful to our law enforcement officers with illegal activities on national forest system lands in California,” said Tiffany Holloway, a spokeswoman for the agency. She declined to comment about what types of crimes the tools are used to investigate or provide examples of how the technology has helped law enforcement.

Vigilant provides some data for free to federal and state law enforcement agencies, said Brian Shockley, the company's vice president of marketing. The information has been used to “solve crimes and save lives,” he said.

Other federal offices, including the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, have awarded contracts to Vigilant for access to its records or tracking tools.

The Air Force's Air Combat Command awarded Vigilant a contract for license plate readers valued at as much as $114,000 in September 2011, according to online federal data. The license plate readers are a “valuable tool” that help make base access “easier and more secure,” said Benjamin Newell, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command.

“The more aware we are of who is entering a military facility, the better we are able to protect the lives and equipment on that base,” Newell said.

NetChoice, a Washington-based trade association that represents e-commerce businesses, is concerned that groups opposing the tools offer “no recognition at all of the benefits of license plate recognition in stopping crime or saving lives,” said Steve DelBianco, its executive director.

Companies that collect the data or sell the technology have strict guidelines about who can obtain records, he said.

“Our governments require us to display a plate on our cars, visible on the front and back in public, for a reason,” DelBianco said. “A lot of the concern is a knee-jerk reaction to Snowden revelations.”

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