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Use of license-plate scanner technology, data stirs controversy

Jeremy Redmon Tribune News Service

ATLANTA – 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 companies. 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 now are considering a bill that would restrict how police and private companies use the information they capture with the tag readers.

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, said 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 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.

Asked about the security of his company’s data, Hodnett said numerous measures are in place to keep out hackers, including encryption, firewalls and password controls. Copies of his company’s records also are 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 also may 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, Vigilant’s vice president of marketing.

“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.”

Cpl. Kay Lester, a Fulton County Police Department 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.

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that focused on defending civil liberties, objects to police holding on to 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 said. “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 legislation, including Georgia.

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

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