Tech

License Plate Scans Allow Government, Companies To Track Where You Go, What You Do

Robert Pursell Contributor

Every day across the country, high-speed license plate cameras are being used by both law enforcement officials and private companies to track the movement and activity of citizens across the country.

That information is being stored in massive governmental and private databases, where it is subsequently sold to third-party companies for commercial usage or used by law enforcement officials to assists in arrests and seizures. And, for the most part, there is no oversight on the practice.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, and through information obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request, the government program is a function of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and its stated goal is to aid law officers in combating drug trafficking.

The practice was originally started around the Mexican border in areas where the drug trade is rampant, but in the years since has expanded nationwide, and is currently employed by law enforcement officials to aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes beyond the realm of narcotics.

A main goal of the program is the pursuit of asset forfeiture, a practice through which law-enforcement agencies seize property and cash from suspected criminals.

Asset forfeiture has come under intense criticism for its lack of regulation and how alarmingly difficult it is for ultimately law-abiding and innocent citizens whose property has been wrongly seized to recover their assets.

The practice of compiling license plate records has gone widely unchecked, there has been no real legislation levied against it, and only Utah has refused when asked to feed its license plate data into the federal registry.

Perhaps belying its roots as a weapon against the border drug trade, all requests for access to the national registry are handled by a single agency, the El Paso Intelligence Center, also known as EPIC in the intelligence community. The widespread nature of the data collection has civil liberty advocates concerned.

“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret.”

Perhaps equally concerning for privacy advocates is the widespread practice of collecting license plate information via car-mounted automated license plate readers for commercial use. The readers, which have long been a staple of law enforcement officials, are now the norm in other areas, such as the repossession industry, Syracuse.com reports.

By rapidly uploading the more than 100 plates per minute to an online registry, those in the repo business are able to more easily hunt for cars that need to be repossessed. But the information, and the massive registries it is stored in, goes far beyond the repo industry.

The largest registry in the United States contains over two billion records and claims to have eyes in every city in the U.S. The information contained within that registry is sold to global information brokering companies, according to Syracuse.com.

While these companies normally specialize in selling credit information, this new data allows them to sell information regarding where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and whom you know to third-party companies.

For instance, an insurance company can see that your car has been frequenting dangerous parts of town and your insurance company could adjust your policy based on that risk. And the information accessible goes beyond simply knowing where you frequent.

Certain companies specialize in combining this license plate data with records from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Companies like TransUnion, the Chicago-based company that reported a $1.1 billion revenue in 2012, are able to purchase records from the DMV and combine that with the license plate data to create online profiles of citizens.

By using their services, an individual can find the home address, phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts of anyone in the registry, as well as what areas and they frequent when traveling. TransUnion states that at present it only gives that information to a list of “credentialed customers,” which includes lawyers, private detectives, and insurance industry workers, among others.

Despite concerns over the practices, no legislation has been drawn up over the practice. Companies like the Digital Recognition Network, the largest private database of these records, have fought any legislation trying to restrict their practices under First Amendment lawsuits. DRN argued that since the data they are collecting starts as a picture on a public street, it is public information, and the companies that keep the data have insisted that the information isn’t being used unethically.

“The whole notion that there is a privacy concern … is just not valid,” Brian Shockley, the vice president of marketing for Vigilant, DRN’s sister company, told Syracuse.com. “It’s not a people. It’s a license plate. It’s not connected to personal information, at all.”