Private Companies Are Scanning Your License Plate And Location, Selling The Data

When you hear the phrase “vast hidden network of cameras that scan license plates,” what do you think of? The police? The Department of Homeland Security? While the government and privacy advocates argue over government use of plate-scanning data, private companies are already collecting and selling that data with little regulation.

The Boston Globe’s BetaBoston brought this industry to our attention. There happens to be a bill up for discussion right now that would ban private-sector license plate data collection and scanning in Massachusetts.

The most logical private-sector application of this technology is to track down and collect cars with delinquent payments. Indeed, many cameras are mounted on tow trucks or unmarked cars belonging to recovery companies. Spotter cars love to check office parking lots during the day, and malls and sporting events on weekends and after hours.

Okay, but you’re current on your car payments, so you have nothing to worry about. Right? Nope. The plate-scanning companies don’t just erase all of that data. They’re keeping a massive database of which cars were in which locations at what time. Government entities have to purge their data, but private companies don’t. It’s all for sale. If you’re out driving or parked on the street, after all, your plate is visible to everyone. Cameras too. Here’s a visual primer on how it works.

“I fear that the proposed legislation would essentially create a safe haven in the Commonwealth for certain types of criminals, it would reduce the safety of our officers, and it could ultimately result in lives lost,” the vice president of marketing for Vigilant said in his testimony at a transportation committee meeting today. Vigilant just happens to be the parent company of Digital Recovery Network, or DRN, a company that sells plate-scanning cameras and the data they collect.

This has been really great for the recovery industry, and we don’t begrudge banks taking back cars once the owners have defaulted on their loans. Well, as long as they have the right car. It’s the “collecting and selling the data” thing that most people have more trouble with. DRN claims that it has scans about 40% of the vehicles in the United States at least every year, and competitor TLO brags that its cameras have probably seen every car in the country at least once, and they have a database of over a billion sightings of individual cars ready for companies to mine. Who’s searching this data? Who the hell knows? Private investigators can use it. So can insurance companies.

(TLO marketing materials)

(TLO marketing materials)

A vast hidden surveillance network runs across America, powered by the repo industry [BetaBoston]