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]

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  1. jackless says:

    Only works in states with front license plates. That’s one reason to always back into a parking space or pull through and face out. Or, just put a magnetic sticker on your plate when parking.

  2. furiousd says:

    One of the applications of my research is in enhancing images of number plates to make automated recognition easier. While I, too, don’t like the idea of someone having access to aggregated data of my regular routine I also realize that when I’m in public I have no expectation of such privacy. I like [jackless]’s observation of simple measures that can be taken to prevent this. I also wonder about a system that used this sort of tech:

    In the original development, it was done as sort of an art piece as an ‘unreadable’ clock. If the same thing were applied to license plates, then only if a person (say a police officer, bail bondsman, insurance rep looking for a specific car) could read the plate. The PWM of the LEDs would prevent automated capture and processing with a camera, so places that collect your plate automatically would go out because of the increased cost and inherent inaccuracy of a person-based system of logging. If this was legal to put on your car, it wouldn’t be too expensive to do. I doubt any municipality would get on board though.

    • LooseSasquatch says:

      While I understand that I don’t have any expectation of privacy out in public, I don’t think the people who wrote that law ever envisioned a scenario where your every move would be recorded and searchable for all eternity as a matter of course. I think you don’t have the expectation of privacy for the companies to scan you license individually (such as to check if you are a candidate for being towed/repossessed), but I think that the law needs to be updated, because the spirit of the law is being broken by having your every move recorded and searchable by any entity who has a few bucks. The government shouldn’t even be able to store these records for more than a short period of time (like say 90 days). Any longer than that, and we start getting into panopticon territory. . .

      Lastly, to the owner of this company who uses the threat that if they ban this practice, then it’s POSSIBLE that the lives of a police officer will be lost. Um, that is not a valid excuse for wholesale invasion of privacy of regular citizens who are not suspected of any crime. Cops sign up for the job and know what to expect. We can’t go around violating the rights of every citizen in the off chance that it will save one of the precious unicorns in a blue uniform. . .

      • EducationalGeek says:

        You say in public…problem is that office parking lots are not public property. Unless the property owners have a written agreement with a recovery company then you can sue and get your vehicle back.