Liberty Planet Weblog

Private companies and states are tracking your car

Posted on: July 20, 2013

License plate recognition technology developed for law enforcement and embraced by the auto repossession industry is being opened to wider use through a Florida company that lets its clients track the travels of millions of private vehicles – adding to privacy advocates’ concerns that such data could be used improperly.

TLO, an investigative technology company in Boca Raton, Fla., began offering the search service to its private industry clients in late June, saying it taps into a database of more than 1 billion records collected by automatic license plate readers.

A report earlier this week by the ACLU found that U.S. law enforcement agencies are scooping up droves of data using license plate readers, creating massive databases where more than 99 percent of the entries represent innocent people.

But private industry also has put the technology to work, most prominently in recovering vehicles from deadbeat borrowers. As the new TLO service demonstrates, private use of LPR data for other purposes is expanding rapidly.

It’s unclear who runs the database that TLO taps into, but the two leading companies in the field say that each month their databases collect tens of millions of pieces of geo-located information from thousands of license plate readers, mounted on tow trucks, mall security vehicles, police cars, at the entrances to store parking lots, on toll booths or along city streets and highways.

The data can include the location of the vehicle, the date and time it was spotted, and an image. Sometimes, drivers and passengers appear in the images.

“The prospect of a private company making such data public to all comers is scary,” said Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “This kind of information is particularly what stalkers would love to get their hands on.”

Crump, who wrote the ACLU report but said she had not been aware of TLO’s service, worried about privacy concerns with other possible uses, such as corporations tracking where their employees go after work, politicians scouting rivals or people keeping tabs on babysitters’ travels.

But those involved in amassing license plate databases say such fears are unfounded – and that data obtained via Facebook, Twitter or a person’s cellphone are far more intrusive.

“They can figure out who you date,” said Scott A. Jackson, founder and CEO of Illinois-based MVTRAC, which controls one of the two big private LPR databases in the U.S. “For us to figure out that information, it would take us billions and billions of license plates to get to that point. We’re at least 10 years away from that.”

Source: NBC

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