Repo Scan: License Plate Readers Fuel Private Surveillance Industry

The privacy issues surrounding the use of license plate scanners isn’t exactly a new story. After all, none other than the ACLU published a report on the topic last year. The title of that report: “You Are Being Tracked” left little to the imagination.

Repo Man Poster
The repossession industry’s use of wholesale license plate scanning is raising concern among privacy and civil liberties activists.

 

But The Boston Globe presents a troubling picture of how far and fast license plate scanning has come, and how the combination of super-efficient scanning with cloud based applications and Big Data analytics are empowering private companies to surveil law abiding citizens across much of the country.

OnTuesday, reporter Shawn Musgrave reported on the phenomenon of automobile repossession firms in Massachusetts using powerful, car-mounted license plate readers to troll mall parking lots and commuter stations for cars whose owners are behind in their payments. The cameras scan the plates of all vehicles that they pass – delinquent or not – and send the images to a data broker in Texas, Digital Recognition Network (or DRN) where the plates are and their location are stored. That location data is then resold to third parties that include private investigators and insurance firms.

DRN is one of a handful of companies offering similar services. Though the companies won’t say how large their databases are, some have boasted to having the number of almost every registered car in the U.S. – billions of vehicles in all.

The ACLU report was focused mostly on the use of license plate scanners by the government and law enforcement, but did address the increasing use of plate scanners by repossession firms and private sector entities, as well. David Kravetz wrote about it (albeti in passing) over at Wired.com back in July.

The Globe report adds an even more troubling phenomenon: large-scale, private sector surveillance for-a-profit, and talks about the brewing battle between civil rights and privacy minded lawmakers and what amounts to a ‘data broker lobby.’

One big problem with the private sector collecting data compared with law enforcement is that there are few rules governing the storage or use of that data. Many states have laws requiring public agencies to delete captured images after a period of time. But companies like DRN are under no such compulsion. To the contrary: their business is built around the long-term collection, storage and analysis of data on individuals movements and behaviors.  

In Massachusetts, an effort is afoot at the State House to protect the privacy of state residents against tech-fueled trawling. A bill proposed by state Representative Jonathan Hecht and state Senator Cynthia Creem would ban the use of license plate readers except for law enforcement, toll collection, and parking regulation.

Flush with cash, the data broker industry is mounting a legal fight against states, like Massachusetts, that are debating changes to the law that would strengthen privacy protections. Musgrave notes that data brokers are fighting the proposed bill in Massachusetts by arguing that repo agents are not invading privacy when they scan a ­license plate, which is available for all to see. Identifying a license plate number isn’t the same as identifying the owner of the vehicle, they argue. Besides, if Massachusetts implements stronger privacy protections, it “risks getting left behind in the use of a new tool that helps fight crime,” Musgrave writes. 

The case of license plate scanners is just the latest to test notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ space in Massachusetts. After the State’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that current laws do not prohibit creepy and surreptitious ‘up skirt’ photographs of women, the State legislature was forced to move quickly to pass a law that explicitly outlawed the practice. At question was the expectation of privacy that fully clothed women had in public spaces such as the subway and a public street.

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