In Rochester, New York, and other cities around the country, license plate readers (LPRs) continue to pop up. With little regulation nationwide, no one really knows how much of their data is collected, how it’s used, who keeps the data or for how long.
Most surprisingly, the digital cameras are mounted on cars and trucks driven by a small army of repo men, including some in Rochester and Syracuse.
Shadowing a practice of U.S. law enforcement that some find objectionable, records collected by the repo companies are added to an ever-growing database of license-plate records that is made available to government and commercial buyers.
At present that database has 2.3 billion permanent records, including hundreds of thousands gathered locally. On average, the whereabouts of every vehicle in the United States — yours, mine, your mother’s — appears in that database nine times.
Todd Hodnett, founder of the company that aggregates and sells that data, defends the activity as lawful and harmless. “We’re just photographing things that are publicly visible,” he said.
No matter how benign the intentions of camera system operators, they say, their data may prove irresistible to government or private parties bent on snooping.
“We think people are entitled to wander around this grand country without being concerned about being tracked,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “What they’re doing … is making it possible for someone to come back and check.”
As often is the case with emerging technologies, license-plate reader use is outpacing government attempts at regulation. Only five states have adopted laws regulating or banning private use of license-plate readers, also known as LPRs, with legislative bodies in as many more states having considered such measures.
New York State has no such laws, but there are 3.8 million records in their database.
Crowded mall parking lots have been favored venues for plate readers, which are deployed for market studies, security purposes or to guide shoppers who have forgotten where they left their car.
The owner of the Rochester area’s largest malls, Wilmorite Inc., is aware of the trend but has so far opted out.
“We have been approached by those companies. From our perspective … there’s still some privacy issues. People feel you’re using information they want to keep private,” said Janice Sherman, Wilmorite’s marketing director. “At this point we’re not going to jump in something like that. We want to see how it pans out.”
In some cases, motorists must provide their own personal data and then have no control over how it’s used.
At Monroe Community College, employees, students and frequent visitors register their plate numbers with the college. Employees gain access to gated lots when cameras match their plate with a number in the college database.
Campus security patrols student and visitor lots with license plate cameras, making sure everyone’s parked in the right place. If they’re not, tickets follow. The number of tickets is down, spokeswoman Cynthia Cooper said, perhaps because students no longer misplace their window stickers.
Perhaps tickets are down because access to gated areas are only allowed after plate numbers are matched with a database, not because people have forgotten to put a sticker on a window. Restricted access automatically reduces tickets.
New York State’s DMV has also jumped on the cash cow bandwagon.
Every two years, the New York DMV sells access to its database of registered vehicles. That database includes the registrant’s name and address plus the make, model and year of the vehicle. Under the current contract, Experian Information Solutions and R.L. Polk and Co. are expected to pay New York about $3 million over two years for this data.
Those two companies are free to use and to re-sell the data, but it can only be employed for “statistical compilations” and research. They cannot contact an individual or make use of their personal information except in connection with a vehicle manufacturer’s recall. Federal law contains a provision allowing registrants to “opt-in” to use of this data for marketing purposes, but New York DMV officials assume no one would want to be targeted for marketing in this way and thus the agency has no opt-in program.
Some individuals still do not see a problem with anyone obtaining this data. Your movements are tracked everywhere you go in your vehicle. After a few days, a profile can be developed on you.
Databases can, and are, hacked. If there’s a profile on you, someone now knows the schedule of your family and the most likely time you are not going to be home. They know where your spouse and children are on a regular basis.
This sort of information can be used to find out your political leanings, what protests or rallies you attend, who you associate with. It is a temptation those in power will not resist. With this information, it will be trivial to crush dissent.