Privately owned license-plate imaging systems are popping up around Rochester and upstate New York — in parking lots, shopping malls and, soon, on at least a few parts of the New York state Thruway.
Most surprisingly, the digital cameras are mounted on cars and trucks driven by a small army of repo men.
Shadowing a practice of U.S. law enforcement that some find objectionable, records collected by the repo companies are added to an ever-growing database of license-plate records that is made available to government and commercial buyers.
At present that database has 2.3 billion permanent records, including hundreds of thousands gathered locally. On average, the whereabouts of every vehicle in the United States appears in that database nine times.
Todd Hodnett, founder of the company that aggregates and sells that data, defends the activity as lawful and harmless. “We’re just photographing things that are publicly visible,” he said.
Many private-sector camera operators, like parking companies, say they do not know the names and addresses behind the plates they scan. Others, like universities, say they discard the records almost immediately.
But that doesn’t satisfy critics. No matter how benign the intentions of camera system operators, they say, their data may prove irresistible to government or private parties bent on snooping.
“We think people are entitled to wander around this grand country without being concerned about being tracked,” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “What they’re doing … is making it possible for someone to come back and check.”
Only five states have adopted laws regulating or banning private use of license-plate readers, also known as LPRs, with legislative bodies in as many more states having considered such measures.
New York is not one of them. Anyone who can obtain a camera is legally free to create databases of license-plate records on New York public streets or parking lots.
License-plate systems already are commonplace among police agencies, including in New York.
The systems alert police instantly if the camera images the plate of a stolen car or a vehicle on the “hot list” for another reason. But police say they store records so they can go back and trace the whereabouts of a suspect or look for witnesses who might have driven past the scene of a crime.
Hodnett said he launched Digital Recognition Network in 2007 to help repo companies find cars they’d been hired to repossess.
A year later, the idea arose of repurposing all the records being collected. “We thought we could turn around and offer this for law-enforcement purposes,” he said.
In partnership with Vigilant Solutions, a California hardware-maker that provided cameras for DRN’s system and now is DRN’s corporate parent, Hodnett launched the National Vehicle Location Service. The service incorporates the private-sector data collected by DRN with other plate records gathered by police and stored on Vigilant computer servers. Law enforcement agencies have limited free access to the database. Full access is available for a fee.
The company also sells data to corporate and commercial customers that are allowed access to motor-vehicle records under federal law.
“We do not make it available to any individuals,” Hodnett said. He also noted that DRN’s database “does not contain any personally identifiable information whatsoever.”
But any number of companies and agencies have the ability to match a plate number to a name, and anyone with the money and a plausible reason can hire a private investigator to surf through DRN’s 2.3 billion records via a service like TLO.
Tien of EFF, a leading digital privacy group, said advocates have been trying without success to get a clear picture of who is getting access to DRN’s data. But they know state and federal regulations leave room for a wide range of clients.
“As a general matter, the limit is what they’re currently willing and able to do to monetize the data,” he said.