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The government isn't the only entity collecting detailed information about our historical travel by deploying license plate readers that suck up vast quantities of data every day. Private companies have their own cameras, which they use to canvass our streets and collect massive amounts of revealing information about the travel patterns and location histories of millions of motorists nationwide.
One of the largest of these private data hoarders is called Vigilant Video. That firm operates a database called the National Vehicle Location Service, which in January 2012 contained 550 million records of our travel information. (The number of plate reads in the database is likely significantly higher today.) Vigilant Video sells that data to other private entities, and allows the police and federal law enforcement to access it for free.
But Vigilant video is far from alone on the private license plate reader market. Repossession companies are deploying the cameras, storing and sharing the data, and scooping up cars like never before. The video embedded above shows how one company has enabled, through its own web-interface, repo companies to share our travel data with one another — creating yet another massive data store showing where ordinary motorists went, and when.
The narrator in the video explains how it works:
"One of the features you can utilize is the tag history. If you click the tag history, and enter in a license plate…click the look-up. And if the repossession company that you have logged in as allows it, you'll be given a list of the locates that have been seen, with the repossession company that has seen it…"
He goes on to say that the system has built-in mechanisms to ensure that people don't gain improper access to this highly sensitive information. But what qualifications do repo men have to view it in the first place? Many Americans are justifiably concerned about what will happen to our personal privacy if the government can go back and look at maps showing everywhere we've ever driven, all without a warrant. So why would we trust private companies with that data, when they are subject to even fewer and less stringent oversight or transparency requirements?
Only two states in the nation have appropriately dealt with the privacy issues license plate readers raise: Maine and New Hampshire. But the ACLU, along with privacy-minded legislators, are pushing bills in state capitals nationwide to follow their lead. Luckily for us in Massachusetts, our proposed legislation would ban private deployment of these powerful tools, as well as ensure that the government doesn't have carte blanch when it comes to using them to monitor our long term travel patterns.
If you live in Massachusetts you can help us by taking action to support our privay work. And spread the word.