from the eye-spy dept
Recently, we’ve covered a series of stories centered around license plate scanners and the way such information is stored. Despite the protests of the ACLU, local law enforcement agencies have widely deployed the technology and there have also been requests from federal agencies to build a central database of information based on plate scans. If the latest reports are to be believed, however, these would simply be attempts to nationalize an endeavor that has already been undertaken by private industry.
According to the Boston Globe, the helpful groups building this database of license plate scans and providing it to banks, creditors, private investigators and law enforcement agencies are the repo industry and data brokers. And it’s far worse than you might think.
While public debate about the license reading technology has centered on how police should use it, business has eagerly adopted the $10,000 to $17,000 scanners with remarkably few limits. At least 10 repossession companies in Massachusetts say they mount the scanners on spotter cars or tow trucks, and Digital Recognition Network of Fort Worth, Texas, claims to collect plate scans of 40 percent of all US vehicles annually.
And that’s just one company. The article goes on to note that there are other groups in the data brokerage business that otherwise claim to collect a large majority of US vehicles every year. Those groups freely admit to providing those scan databases to a variety of third parties.
The main commercial use of license plate scanners remains the auto finance and auto repossession industries, two professions that work closely together to track down people who default on their loans. Digital Recognition lists Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., HSBC Holdings, and Citibank among its clients, while MVTRAC boasts that it serves 70 percent of the auto finance industry.
Digital Recognition already provides its entire data pool to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, free of charge for most searches. The Massachusetts State Police is a registered subscriber, as are the Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Quincy police departments. Even Boston College and Brandeis police have access to the firm’s entire scan database.
Now, in response to the privacy concerns raised by activists, what the data brokers and repo folks will tell you is that these scans typically occur in public places. That’s not always true, since the repo trucks often will enter private property, such as the parking lot of an apartment or condo complex, but their point is that there is no expectation of privacy in an area that’s in plain sight. They’ll also tell you that these are just license plate scans, not detailed personal information about anyone in particular.
But that’s bullshit, of course. It ignores the practical application of the scan database, as well as to whom that information is being sold. Banks, PIs, and creditors can all scrub this raw data against available DMV and governmental information, while law enforcement agencies both local and federal can build up a database that tracks the movement of any scanned vehicle and the citizens associated with it. If we could get Thomas Jefferson on the horn and ask him what he thought of all this, I’d argue that he’d be spending too much time picking his own jaw up off the floor to give us a proper response.
“Right now, it’s the wild West in terms of how companies can collect, process, and sell this kind of data,” says Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “The best legal minds, best public policy thinkers, and ordinary people whose lives are affected need to sit down and think of meaningful ways we can regulate it.”
Which is exactly what some legislators in Massachusetts are attempting to do with legislation, but it isn’t the first time crafting this kind of law has been tried. All previous attempts have been torpedoed by the data broker industry, including one case in Utah, where Digital Recognition sued the state for its ban on plate scanners as a first amendment violation. That seems to stretch the definition a bit too far.
So, if you own a car, a private company that deals for free with law enforcement agencies knows who you are, where you’ve been, and where you spend most of your time. And, without additional legislation, they do so without the checks and balances that would be insisted upon were the LEOs doing the scanning themselves. This must be what they mean when they say that private industry will always outpace government.