Private License Plate Scanners Amassing Vast Databases Open to Highest Bidders
Automated license plate readers used by car repo companies, for example, collect billions of personal records per year, which contribute to vast databases that can be used by law enforcement, insurance companies, banks, and the like, with few limits.
BetaBoston, working with the Boston Globe, detailed one Boston repo company’s data collection abilities, reporting that New England Associates Inc. can collect $200 to $400 for each vehicle found by an automated reader attached to an unmarked car. The company says it can typically add 8,000 license plate scans to its database in Texas each day.
Digital Recognition Network, which works with New England Associates, says it collects plate scans of 40 percent of all US vehicles per year.
According to the company’s own disclosures, Digital Recognition Network operates in conjunction with around 400 repossession outfits across the US, has increased tenfold its plate scans since September 2010, and adds 70 million scans a month.
The scanners use high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology to scoop up 1,800 plates a minute, no matter the speed or driving conditions. The scanner also collects the date, time, and GPS location of each read, punctuating the privacy threats associated with plate scanning.
The legal scanners, which usually cost anywhere from $10,000 to $17,000, have few legal limits.
For example, law enforcement – which have used the scanners for years – often have prohibitions on how long they can maintain the information gleaned, but private use is open season for those willing to subscribe for the information.
The top commercial use of the devices falls into the auto finance and auto repossession industries, which both work closely with major banks to track down those who default on loans. Digital Recognition claims its clients include Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., HSBC Holdings, and Citibank.
Banks strongly encourage its repo contractors to use plate scanners, based on their efficiency in tracking down loan defaulters.
“The banks want it,” said Liran Cohen, owner of repo company Massachusetts Recovery Bureau. “All of them make a big deal out of it, since it gives them so much value.”
Yet with few limits, there is little, if any, accountability regarding where and how repossession companies use the scanners. Many companies that spoke to the Globe said they send spotter cars to commercial lots based on the amount of vehicles open for scanning.
Digital Recognition’s website lists “target environments” for repo agents, including “malls, movie theaters, sporting events, and numerous other locations.” The company also suggests repo agents trawl workplaces and commercial lots during the day and apartment complexes and residential areas at night.
Some commercial property owners call this practice trespassing.
“We’re unaware that this is happening, and we’re reaching out to our security teams and law enforcement contacts to get a better handle on it,” said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, which owns at least one mall in the Boston area.
“If we saw scanning like this being done, we would throw them out,” said Issie Shait of New England Development, which owns the CambridgeSide Galleria and Bunker Hill Mall District.
Two repo companies said they target low-income housing areas, given the amount of yields collected in the past.
“This is just another example of stereotyping,” said Cambridge Housing Authority deputy executive director Michael Johnston. “But our lots are open, and we don’t have any gated communities in our system, so I don’t know how to prevent it.”
For its part, Digital Recognition said it cannot be blamed for how the scanners are used.
“We have nothing to do with the actual data collection process,” said Chris Metaxas, chief executive of Digital Recognition. “We provide technology to ¬repossession professionals.”
Over 60 Massachusetts police departments have adopted scanners since 2008. In December, the Boston police suspended plate scanner use after a Globe investigation found questionable data management – including the inadvertent public release of over 69,000 license plate numbers.
“Right now, it’s the wild West in terms of how companies can collect, process, and sell this kind of data,”said Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “The best legal minds, best public policy thinkers, and ordinary people whose lives are affected need to sit down and think of meaningful ways we can regulate it.”
Data Brokers Are Now Selling Your Car’s Location For $10 Online
The Berkeley Marina, a stretch of park and an enclosed yacht harbor, juts into the San Francisco Bay.
Visitors regularly drive there to admire the dramatic view that includes Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. When I lived in the area, I often parked my car, surveyed the vista for many minutes, then drove away if the weather did not prove ideal for windsurfing.
When fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson made his last visits to the Berkeley Marina from his hometown of Modesto, Calif., he had a practical goal in mind. He wanted to see whether his pregnant wife whom he had murdered had washed up along the shoreline. In the Peterson case a decade ago, police placed a GPS tracker onto his vehicles when they began to suspect that he was lying. Peterson had driven a few times to the marina homicide site, even though he told police he had only learned his wife had gone missing after returning from a fishing expedition to the San Francisco Bay. That GPS evidence eventually helped convict him of murder; he is now on death row.
I thought of this story, revealed at Peterson’s murder trial which I occasionally attended, when a prominent data broker announced two weeks ago that it had begun selling locational information on license plates that have been filmed and identified. In recent years, police have also widely embraced license plate recognition to track suspected criminals. Repo men use the technology to recover vehicles; casinos in Las Vegas employ it to monitor cars in their parking lots. And now data broker TLO has begun selling information about the time and location at which cars have been sighted.
“With a massive database of one BILLION vehicle sightings and the addition of up to 50 million new sightings each month, Vehicle Sightings provide valuable information for both locating subjects and investigating the historical whereabouts of both individuals and vehicles,” advertises TLO, a data broker that caters to lawyers, private investigators, law enforcement and insurance firms, among others.The service charges $10 per category of each license plate look up, divided into current, recent and historical. Cars are photographed or filmed and then matched with license plate recognition software.
Initially I imagined a database that knew almost as much as a GPS locator: that you drove out of state three weekends ago, stopped off at the pharmacy on the way, spent the afternoon at a baseball game, then had dinner at a specific restaurant.
In reality, the feature is quite far from the all-knowing eye in the sky, although it can still reveal intimate clues. I searched for my own car, as well that those of two relatives with their permission. Of five cars that I looked up, three cars turned up nothing, but I found data on the other two.One car had a single sighting: it was parked on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 12:40 in the morning last December. The report included a picture of the car and license plate. A link showed exactly where the car was on Google Maps. For another car, the search turned up data from August last year which showed it parked in Austin, Texas, a few minutes after noon. The lot was in front of a building of doctors’ offices, potentially revealing intimate information about that person’s activity that day.
That means TLO would hold an average of four sightings per vehicle.“While the coverage is nationwide, certainly there will be areas with more expansive coverage than others,” said James Reilly, TLO’s senior vice president of sales and business development. “Variables such as the amount of time the vehicles are stationed in inaccessible areas (i.e. secured lots at places of employment, gated communities, etc.) could certainly affect the number of opportunities for ‘sighting.’”
Law enforcement agencies are among the biggest users of automated license plate recognition.