By Olga Belinskaya —
A massive, largely hidden surveillance network “runs across America, powered by the repo industry,” announced The Boston Globe’s online arm “BetaBoston,” in a March 5, 2014 headline. Insurers and lenders of car loans needed a cheap and efficient way to track down their property if a borrower defaulted on payments. As a result, the license plate-reading industry that rose to meet that demand now owns billions of records on where Americans like to travel, gobbling up millions more records every day.
The collection and sale of personal data should be protected by the First and Fourth Amendments, which guarantee privacy of personal beliefs and protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. But the rise of the corporations that gather, store and sell your personal information continues to grow despite fierce criticism from privacy advocates.
Industry leader Digital Recognition Network (DRN) collects data from affiliates’ equipped cars,which drive around to photograph all parked and moving cars with high-speed cameras. In one second, they can capture 60 license plate numbers and record the date, time and location of each scan. DRN compares the license plates with its list of cars to be repossessed, and the repo men earn a fee for each match.
DRN stores all the data it collects, which amounts to about 70 million records monthly. Any data that repossession companies don’t need it then sells to insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, private investigators and financial institutions. Two other companies are building similar databases.
When Utah and Arkansas tried to pass laws banning automatic license plate readers to protect citizens’ privacy, DRN and another company, Vigilant Solutions, sued, claiming a ban violated the First Amendment.
Michael Carvin, a lawyer for DRN and Vigilant in Utah, said: “Taking and distributing a photograph is an act that is fully protected by the First Amendment. . . . The state of Utah cannot claim that photographing a license plate violates privacy. License plates are public by nature and contain no sensitive or private information. Any citizen of Utah can walk outside and photograph anything they please, including a license plate.”
In an article entitled “License Plate Reader Company Sues Another State for ‘Violating’ Its First Amendment Right to Build a 1.8-Billion-Image Database,” Tim Cushing of TechDirt clarifies that although DRN’s logic tries to make its technology look less intrusive than it is, “the troublesome part is that courts have held that privacy violations that don’t exist in the singular can’t magically be summoned by en masse collections.”
DRN argues that it cannot access identifying information behind the license plate numbers and only wants to find repossessed cars. The company claims that drivers’ identities are protected by the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. The act allows personal information only to be revealed for bulk distribution and marketing, and the recipients “may resell or redisclose personal information for any purpose” unless drivers intentionally opt out from marketing lists, a virtually unknown fact.
Vigilant claims that location data shared with police departments helped solve 750,000 instances of murder, rape and other serious crime, or 0.04% of drivers the company initially targeted. In regard to DRN, its records located 190,000 repossessed vehicles, which amounts to about 0.01% of the targets it photographed and documented. The other 99.99% of car-location data collected on innocent, unwitting Americans will be stored and sold indefinitely.
Olga Belinskaya is a native of Ukraine and is AFP’s former bookstore manager. She is currently a peace and monetary reform activist now based in Virginia.