Private Companies Building Giant Unregulated Databases Tracking License Plate Location Info

Do you know everywhere your car has been in the past week? Month? Year? You may or may not remember it all, but there’s a good chance that your license plate has had its photo snapped, and its location recorded, a whole bunch of times in that period. And anyone who can pony up the cash for a subscription to that database can tell exactly where you’ve been.

Private license-plate tracking companies are a $500 million business, as the Los Angeles Times reports, and getting bigger every day.

According to the LA Times, as of 2012 — the most recent available data — over 70% of police departments in the country were using license plate scanning technology. In 2010, it was half that. Police not only have their own scanners, but also pay for access to the database of privately-generated scans.

It’s a tricky sort of public-private arrangement. A private company puts plate cameras and tech on repossession workers’ cars, and those repo agents then drive around the country scanning everyone’s plates, as we’ve covered before. The resulting database has more than two billion scans in it, a number that’s increasing every day.

It’s that aggregation of data that makes the plate-scanning scary. An individual snapshot — “Virginia plate 123456 was at Safeway on 12:19 p.m. this Thursday” — tells you nothing, unless you’re specifically looking for that car. But a series of snapshots, showing you where VA plate 123456 was on nearly every weekday morning and evening for the last three months… that’s a big pile of information about one person’s movements and associations.

Granted, information about the car isn’t necessarily useful if you can’t connect the license plate to an owner. And federal law does prevent state DMVs from just giving out registration information to anyone and everyone who asks. But there are over a dozen exceptions to the law, including one for private investigators. So in reality, it’s not that hard for most organizations to find out who a car belongs to.

There are clear parallels to the collection of phone metadata. Looking at months or years worth of data about where a car is parked or driven and and when it was there gives you pretty clear picture about that car’s owner: Where do they live? Work? Worship? Shop? Where do their kids go to school? Where do they hang out for fun? When? For how long? For many drivers, a month of tracking when and where their car’s license plate was seen would answer every single one of those questions.

To the companies selling this tech, and access to their databases, that’s its key feature:

“Owners are typically within 1,000 feet of the vehicle, so find the vehicle and you find the customer,” reads the site of Digital Recognition Network. “Quickly and efficiently pinpoint the most likely addresses from among the limitless possibilities returned by various data services, friends, associates, relatives, employers.”

It’s not just the police who have access to those scans. So too does anyone else willing to pay — private investigators, repo workers, even banks or lenders.

In some cases, the private companies are now trying to have the police do business’s dirty work for them. The Times reports that last year, one company, Vigilant, offered the police department in Tempe, AZ, access to their license plate scanning tech for free — but with a catch.

In order to get free equipment, the department would have to “go after at least 25 outstanding ‘Vigilant provided’ warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies,” a company VP told the paper.

Speaking for Vigilant, the company VP told the LA Times that “no agencies are currently working under this framework,” but declined to comment further on the issue. A spokesman for the Tempe police told the Times that the city opted not to participate in the program.

Privacy advocates are extremely concerned about the breadth and depth of collected plate-scanning information, and about the lack of regulation regarding its use. And transparency? Forget it.

“Law enforcement agencies have denied public records requests for license plate data, and private data collectors are not subject to such records requests,” the Times reports. An attorney with the EFF told the paper that some of the contracts between companies like Vigilant and police forces even “have a clause that says law enforcement agencies aren’t allowed to talk about their products without talking to the company first.”

There is no way of tracking what private companies are up to, or how they use the data they collect. Legislators in California and in Utah have proposed state-level regulation limiting where license plate photos can be taken, and making it easier for individuals to sue collectors, but in neither state has any bill protecting individuals yet become law. It’s just one more piece of big data that keeps following consumers around.

Use of license plate photo databases is raising privacy concerns [LA Times]

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  1. IMakeMyOwnSnarkAtHome says:

    I fail to see the problem here. You do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public. Your plates are in plain view, and you agreed to display them when you registered your car.

    Why is this scary?

    • LooseSasquatch says:

      I don’t think anyone is saying that they have a right to absolute privacy while in public, but it’s more the idea that this information is saved FOREVER and is searchable that is the issue. I don’t think anyone cares where I go now, but there are a million reasons why someone with nefarious purpose might want to know where I am or have been and it’s scary that these private corporations both have this data saved on all of us AND have very little restrictions on who they will give the data to. I mean, this is probably a boon for any stalker for example. That’s not even getting into the tinfoil hat connotations of big corporations/big government knowing where everyone is at all times back to some fixed point in the past. We have no way of knowing now what things in the future are going to be looked down upon as immoral or even criminal, and we shouldn’t have to worry that our activities are going to be actionable forever in the future.

      They just need to pass laws regarding the access to this data and require that it only be held for a reasonable amount of time, say 90 days. Then I think most people will be fine with that. And please don’t come back to me with the “I’ve got nothing to hide so please gov’t corporations, record any and all of my personal information/interactions because I’ve never broken a law in my entire life” argument, because that is just stupid. Some of us like our liberty free, even if I’m not breaking the law, I don’t want someone to be able to track every single place I’ve parked my car since 2008 (or whenever widespread use of this started). Also, I didn’t really have a choice about whether or not to agree to display my license plate. I think in most people’s view, your license plate is fair game, but only the police and the DMV really had access to link your plate # to your name and address. Get real, people didn’t have a choice in this and simply declare en masse “I don’t care if you can see my license plate”. This is all pretty crazy without limits, just like any kind of widespread database of activity of citizens and our society really needs to get off our asses and pressure our gov’t to make common sense laws about the nature of privacy in the digital age.