How the Repo Industry is Collecting Data on Virtually Every Car in America

surveillance statePrivacy is being violated from all angles. The government, private corporations, the list is seemingly endless. While there have been many reports of government agencies using license plate scanners under questionable legality, the role of private corporations and the repo industry has received considerably less coverage. Until now.

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By Mike Krieger, Liberty Blitzkrieg:

Beta Boston (part of the Boston Globe) has published an excellent report into this very disturbing trend. Excepts below:

Few notice the “spotter car” from Manny Sousa’s repo company as it scours Massachusetts parking lots, looking for vehicles whose owners have defaulted on their loans. Sousa’s unmarked car is part of a technological revolution that goes well beyond the repossession business, transforming any ­industry that wants to check on the whereabouts of ordinary people.

An automated reader attached to the spotter car takes a picture of every license plate it passes and sends it to a company in Texas that already has more than 1.8 billion plate scans from vehicles across the country.

These scans mean big money for Sousa — typically $200 to $400 every time the spotter finds a vehicle that’s stolen or in default — so he runs his spotter around the clock, typically adding 8,000 plate scans to the database in Texas each day.

“Honestly, we’ve found random apartment complexes and shopping ­plazas that are sweet spots” where the company can impound multiple vehicles, explains Sousa, the president of New England Associates Inc. in Bridgewater. 

But the most significant impact of Sousa’s business is far bigger than locating cars whose owners have defaulted on loans: It is the growing database of snapshots showing where Americans were at specific times, information that everyone from private detectives to ­insurers are willing to pay for.

While public debate about the license reading technology has centered on how police should use it, business has eagerly adopted the $10,000 to $17,000 scanners with remarkably few limits.

At least 10 repossession companies in Massachusetts say they mount the scanners on spotter cars or tow trucks, and Digital Recognition Network of Fort Worth, Texas, claims to collect plate scans of 40 percent of all US vehicles annually.

Today, a legislative committee in Boston is scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill that would ban most uses of license plate readers, including the vehicle repossession business, making exceptions only for law enforcement, toll collection, and parking regulation.“

We have technology rapidly moving ahead in terms of its ability to gather information about people,” said state Representative Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who filed the bill along with state Senator Cynthia Creem of Newton, Brookline and Wellesley. “We need to have a conversation about how to balance ­legitimate uses of this technology with protecting people’s ­legitimate expectation of privacy.”

License plate scanning technology has been around for ­decades — the British police originally adopted it in the 1970s to track the Irish Republican Army members — but it only came into wide use in the last decade as cheaper but highly effective models became available. These scanners use high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology to capture up to 1,800 plates per minute, even at high rates of speed and in difficult driving conditions. The scanner also ­records the date, time, and GPS location of each scan.

Since 2008, more than 60 Massachusetts police departments have started using scanners to track down drivers with unpaid tickets, no insurance, or driving stolen vehicles, but the trend has raised concern about potential privacy invasions. In December, Boston police suspended their use of plate scanners altogether after a Globe inves­tigation reported questionable data management, includ­ing the accidental public release of more than 69,000 ­license plate numbers that had been scanned over six months.

Meanwhile, private companies were quietly and rapidly finding ways to profit from much larger databases with little public discussion. Digital Recognition Network, with the help of about 400 repossession companies across the United States, has increased the number of ­license scans in its database tenfold since September 2010, and the firm continues to add another 70 million scans per month, according to company disclosures. Digital Recognition’s top rival, Illinois-based MVTRAC, has not disclosed the size of its database, but claimed in a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview to have scans of “a large majority” of vehicles registered in the United States.

Unlike law enforcement agencies, which often have policies to purge their computers of license records after a certain period of time, the data brokers are under no such obligation, meaning their databases grow and gain value over time as a way to track individuals’ movements and whereabouts.

But the main commercial use of license plate scanners ­remains the auto finance and auto repossession industries, two professions that work closely together to track down people who default on their loans. Digital Recognition lists Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., HSBC Holdings, and Citibank among its clients, while MVTRAC boasts that it serves 70 percent of the auto finance industry.

Of course the banksters are knee deep in this.

“The banks want it,” said ­Cohen, who mounted his ­license scanner on an unmarked tow truck. “All of them make a big deal out of it, since it gives them so much value.”

However, several commercial property owners contacted by the Globe said they had no idea repossession agents could be in their parking lots, scanning license plates and feeding them into a national database. Some said they would consider the practice trespassing.

Two repossession companies also told BetaBoston that they focus on low-income housing developments, since a significant number of residents are delinquent on their car payments.

Picking on the most vulnerable, as usual.

The burgeoning private data­bases of license plates may ultimately be a boon to law, as well, giving them access to a trove of license plates that many are not ­allowed to keep themselves, ­because of data-purging require­ments. Hecht and Creem’s bill would require law enforcement statewide to purge its license plate data after 48 hours.

Just another example of how “private” companies are being used to abuse civil liberties that government can’t publicly get away with.

“Right now, it’s the wild West in terms of how companies can collect, process, and sell this kind of data,” says 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.”

Full article here.

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger