” Towing companies are a necessary evil when it comes to parking enforcement and property repossession. But in the Google Earth we now inhabit, tow trucks do more than just yank cars out of loading zones. They use license-plate readers (LPRs) to assemble a detailed profile of where your car will be and when. That’s an unnecessary evil.
Plate readers have long been a tool of law enforcement, and police officers swear by them for tracking stolen cars and apprehending dangerous criminals. But private companies, such as repo crews, also photograph millions of plates a day, with scanners mounted on tow trucks and even on purpose-built camera cars whose sole mission is to drive around and collect plate scans. Each scan is GPS-tagged and stamped with the date and time, feeding a massive data trove to any law-enforcement agency—or government-approved private industry—willing to pay for it.
You’ve probably been tagged at the office, at a mall, or even in your own driveway. And the companies that sell specialized monitoring software that assembles all these sightings into a reliable profile stand to profit hugely. Brian Hauss, a legal fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says: “The whole point is so you can figure out somebody’s long-term location. Unless there are limits on how those transactions can be processed, I think it’s just a matter of time until there are significant privacy violations, if they haven’t already occurred.”
(How Is This Even Legal? License-plate-reader companies don’t have access to DMV registrations, so while they can track your car, they don’t know it’s yours. That information is guarded by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994, which keeps your name, address, and driving history from public view. Mostly. There are plenty of exceptions, including for insurance companies and private investigators. LPR companies say only two groups can use its software to find the person behind the plate: law-enforcement agencies and repossession companies. In addition, the encrypted databases keep a log of each plate search and allow the ability to restrict access.)
The companies that push plate readers enjoy unregulated autonomy in most states. Vigilant Solutions of California and its partner, Texas-based Digital Recognition Network, boast at least 2 billion license-plate scans since starting the country’s largest private license-plate database, the National Vehicle Location Service, in 2009.
In total, there are at least 3 billion license-plate photos in private databases. Since many are duplicates and never deleted, analytics can paint a vivid picture of any motorist. Predicting where and when someone will drive is relatively easy; software can sort how many times a car is spotted in a certain area and, when fed enough data, can generate a person’s driving history over time.”