Companies join police in using sophisticated cameras to track our cars

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Add this to the ever-growing list of ways our information is being tracked and even commoditized: Repo men armed with sophisticated cameras are collecting details on the whereabouts of our cars, whether we are debtors or not.

A Texas company selling the cameras to the repo businesses is marketing the data they collect to auto lending firms. A sister company is giving its police customers access to the same information in a separate database. And the police are sharing the data they are gathering with each other.

Together, they have amassed about 3 billion “detections” in their databases. Each one includes photographs of a vehicle and its license plate, the geographic coordinates of where it was spotted, and the time and date it was seen. The databases are growing by as many as 100 million detections a month.

The collection of this data is alarming privacy watchdogs and has inspired many states to enact legislation regulating license-plate scanners. Georgia lawmakers are now considering a bill that would restrict how police and private companies use the information they capture with the tag readers.

License plates are ‘not private’

Police and other supporters of the technology say the scanners are taking photos of what is publicly visible. Todd Hodnett, the founder and executive chairman of Digital Recognition Network in Fort Worth, Texas, added that state and federal laws protect the privacy of motorists’ information. State lawmakers, he said, could instead focus on restricting public access to the records and requiring state government oversight and more transparency.

“For the state on one hand to require that you place a license plate with six or eight alphanumeric characters on your vehicle and then on the other hand come back and say that is private — well it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It is not private. Otherwise, how could they require you or mandate you to expose it?”

Hodnett declined to identify his company’s customers in Georgia. But a company spokesman said about 20 repossession businesses in the Peach State are using its license-plate scanners mounted on 40 trucks. Those devices alert the repo men when they scan the license plates of vehicles they are seeking to tow away. But the scanners can take pictures of every vehicle they are pointed at, whether they are targeted for repossession or not.

Hodnett said all the data become his company’s property. His other customers include auto lending companies. They supply Hodnett’s business with license-plate numbers for vehicles they want recovered. And Hodnett’s company responds with addresses where those vehicles were last spotted by license-plate readers. The lending companies forward that information to hired repossession contractors. Hodnett said his company’s data have been used to recover more than 325,000 vehicles worth more than $3.2 billion since 2007.

The owners of several repossession companies based in Georgia declined to comment for this article. One said his contract with a license-plate reader company forbids him from talking to the news media about it.

Data shared with police, not private sector

Asked about the security of his company’s data, Hodnett said numerous measures are in place to keep out hackers, including encryption, fire walls and password controls. Copies of his company’s records are also made available on another database run by its majority shareholder, California-based Vigilant Solutions. Called the National Vehicle Location Service, the database is shared with police agencies that have bought license-plate readers from Vigilant. Those agencies may also elect to share the records they have gathered with other law enforcement departments. But the records are never shared with private companies, said Brian Shockley, the vice president of marketing for Vigilant.

“It was originally developed to provide a mechanism for private entities to share data with law enforcement, never the other way around,” he said. “It never has and never will go the other way.”

Police in Georgia are using license-plate scanners to hunt for stolen vehicles, missing children, fugitives, even suspected terrorists. Shockley declined to name his company’s customers in Georgia. But he said they number somewhere between 30 and 40.

The Fulton County Police Department is among them. Cpl. Kay Lester, a Fulton police spokeswoman, said the single license-plate reader her department uses has helped police recover numerous stolen vehicles, apprehend fugitives and spot traffic violations. Her agency is sharing the data it is gathering on the National Vehicle Location Service database. The county has put no limits on how long those records are stored there.

“Per our understanding, the data that we contribute stays on the database indefinitely,” Lester said in an email. “We can change the time frame if we choose, but since the data is only accessible to (law enforcement agencies), we currently have elected not to do so.”

‘Clandestine tracking of innocent people’

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that focused on defending civil liberties, objects to police holding onto such records indefinitely.

“It’s a real threat to privacy that we allow our government to collect this kind of information on us — on where we travel and where we are going at any given time,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the foundation.

“Many of these law enforcement agencies will drive around parking lots and collect license-plate data,” Lynch continued. “That parking lot might be for your doctor or it might be for your church. I don’t think that law enforcement and the government should have a right to have that information on us.”

Ten states — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont — have laws regulating the tag readers and limiting how long their images are kept, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many other states are weighing related legislation.

On Tuesday, a Georgia legislative committee approved House Bill 93. With some exceptions, police would be required to delete the images they capture with the devices within 90 days under the bill. The legislation would also punish people who use license-plate reader data for purposes other than for law enforcement. They could face up to $5,000 in fines and up to two years in jail. The bill's sponsor — Republican state Rep. John Pezold of Columbus — said he plans to tweak that language so private companies would still be able to use the devices in Georgia but would be prohibited from sharing the records they gather with other parties in the state.

“If people knew this was going on, there would be an uproar,” he said. “It is clandestine tracking of innocent people who have never been charged with a crime and who are not suspected of a crime.”