Privacy SOS

“Repo man” uses license plate tracker to hunt down cars

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"We've actually picked up two vehicles today using the camera system, from historical data."

Automatic license plate readers in the hands of government agencies pose numerous risks to motorists' privacy, particularly absent good data policy restricting data retention and sharing. But lesser known is the increasingly widespread private deployment of license plate readers, for example by "repo men" like the person narrating the video above. 

While the DEA and other government agencies are pooling captured plate data for investigative data-mining purposes, those agencies are at least theoretically supposed to adhere to the Privacy Act and other democratic checks. (To our knowledge, the DEA has thus far ignored Privacy Act requirements pertaining to its ALPR program, but some local communities have taken the technology on at the city police department level and won.)

Since most states don't have rules protecting us from corporations harvesting our license plate information, some companies are using the technology to their advantage in ways that can only be described as creepy.

A 2012 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) showed that at least one private manufacturer of license plate recognition systems has been retaining its own ALPR data, creating an enormous, national database. As government accountability groups have feared, information from that database, the National Vehicle Location Service, is not bound by the few privacy regulations governing government ALPR databases maintained by public agencies. CIR showed that the private firm that owns that database, Vigilant Video, sells our data to police, creating a loophole to skirt around the few public regulations that exist to protect us from improper, retroactive police spying.  
Repo men like license plate trackers, too. Check out the above video to see why.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.