Privacy SOS

No, Mr. CEO, mass location tracking dragnets are not just like Instagram

Yesterday the Massachusetts state legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee heard testimony on two privacy bills: the License Plate Privacy Act and the Drone Privacy Act. We at the ACLU strongly support them both. I testified in support of the drone bill, which would mandate warrants for drone surveillance and ban weaponized drones. My colleagues testified in support of the license plate bill, which would stop police and private corporations from amassing huge troves of data revealing the sensitive location histories of millions of people accused of no crime.

Only one person showed up to testify against the privacy legislation: Chris Metaxas, CEO of the Digital Recognition Network, one of the major players—probably the most most powerful—in the license plate tracking industry.

During his testimony, Metaxas compared his business to Instagram. Journalist Shawn Musgrave reports from the scene:

“It’s taking a picture that has no expectation of privacy and is in public view,” said Chris Metaxas, chief executive of Digital Recognition Network based in Fort Worth, Texas, while speaking about the high-speed scans the technology takes of passing vehicles. ”License plate reader technology stores these pictures just like people store pictures on Instagram, which are available for all to see.”

Metaxas was the sole witness to testify against a bill that would regulate use of license plate readers. His company oversees a nationwide network of license plate reader cameras operated by repo agents, many of whom collect their geotagged “pictures” of license plates in shopping mall parking garages, office park lots, and residential parking facilities.

DRN’s database currently stores 1.8 billion vehicle location records, and its network adds 70 million scans each month. Beyond operating a common database of vehicle sightings for the repossession industry, DRN also sells this data and analysis to insurance companies, banks and law enforcement nationwide.

Hold up. Metaxas wants people to take seriously the idea that his license plate tracking business—which until very recently has operated almost entirely in secret from the American public—is just like a widely-used social media network that allows users to take photographs and share them with their friends?

At the risk of indulging this absurd analogy, allow me to clarify some of the differences between DRN and Instagram.

Can you choose whether or not to use the product? Instagram: Yes. DRN: No.

Does it amass billions of records of the driving patterns of ordinary motorists? Instagram: No. DRN: Yes.

Does it sell your driving location history to banks, insurance companies, and police? Instagram: No. DRN: Yes.

Is it a social networking service? Instagram: Yes. DRN: No.

Are all Instagram pictures “available for all to see,” as Metaxas claims? No. Users can make their accounts private.

Are the billions of records in DRN’s database “available for all to see”, as Metaxas (falsely) claims Instagram users' are? No. The only people who can access this database are those connected to institutions like banks, insurance companies, police departments, and intelligence agencies, or people who have licenses to serve as private investigators. Under current law, you have no legal right to access information DRN holds about you, let alone the millions of other people the company keeps records on.

In short: No, Mr. Metaxas, your massive, nationwide location tracking database is actually nothing like Instagram, a wildly popular social networking service.

Thankfully, these spurious claims and distractions from the real issue don’t seem to be having any effect on the legislature. The co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee told the public yesterday that his committee would act on this critical legislation.

“This affects everybody in this room — whether they’re aware of it or not, people are keeping track of them,” said Representative William Strauss (D – Mattapoisett), one of the committee chairs. “Between law enforcement use of the technology and private sector use of the technology, and the corresponding data retention, access and use.”

“There is a strong interest, and a bipartisan interest,” he said, “to act on this proposal. There is a legislative role in our system of government to define the constitutional issues in play here.”

Amen to that. If you want to make sure your legislators support commonsense privacy protections in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, take action now and spread the word. Like Rep. Strauss said, the rights you defend are your own.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.