A private firm in California has collected license plate information on more than half a billion cars in order to help police departments track down criminals.

A privately-owned California firm probably has your license plate data in its database of over 550 million vehicles.

The National Vehicle Location Service Database, maintained and updated from video grabs in parking lots across the country, is run by Vigilant Video to extrapolate a loophole that restricts how much information police officers can derive from their own databases. Police are not allowed to solve other, unrelated crimes from their own license plate databases, but the privacy law does not restrict them from accessing third party information.

Police cars across the country have been equipped with cameras that read license plates and query the Vigilant Video database. If a stolen vehicle - or one registered to someone who is subject to a warrant - is picked up by the camera, the police officer in the car is alerted.

In addition, Vigilant sells license plate readers to police, which helps make the Livermore, California, firm a one-stop destination for license plate data.

While this might seem like a proactive approach, it has raised red flags from those concerned with its all-encompassing information, which not only includes hundreds of millions of license plate numbers issued to innocent citizens but also shows where and when the plates were picked up.

Still, police and Vigilant are quick to point out that the service has solved numerous crimes, including some that were in progress. A report from ABC affiliate KGO noted that one car thief was caught red-handed with pick-pocketed shoes in a store inside a shopping mall after the stolen car he was driving was spotted outside.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, police say that car thefts at the city's Arden Fair shopping mall dropped from 77 in 2006 to just eight last year. In addition, 68 vehicles stolen elsewhere were recovered at the mall because of routine scanning by police officers.


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