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. VPC
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Privately owned license-plate imaging systems are popping up in 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. On average, the whereabouts of every vehicle in the United States — yours, mine, your mother’s — 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.
New York knows where your license plate goes
And in fact, mass collection of license-plate images is just one of many ways in which business and government entities legally compile data on individuals. The difference in this case is they do it not by sifting through social-media posts or mining financial records, but by driving down the street.
Many private-sector camera operators, such as parking companies, say they do not know the names and addresses behind the plates they scan. Others, such as 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.”
As often is the case with emerging technologies, license-plate reader use is outpacing government attempts at regulation. 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.
Government drops plan to collect license plate tracking info.
New York is not one of them. The Empire State has no laws on the books or legislation in the works to regulate the use of LPRs. Anyone who can obtain a camera — and there are websites that offer basic models online for less than $2,000 — 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.
As the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle reported in July, local police have accumulated more than 3.8 million records, to be stored for as long as five years. Statewide, the number of archived law-enforcement license plate records numbers in the tens of millions.
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.
Most private-sector uses of the technology have more prosaic purposes, such as controlling access to parking lots or collecting tolls.
Advanced Recovery, one of the auto-repo companies that scoops up license-plate records of passing motorists, shares a location with a towing company and a private investigative firm.
The firm’s website makes no bones about the company’s use of license-plate readers, and states it has accumulated more than 500,000 LPR records.
But they won’t talk about it publicly. “We’re bound by contract not to speak about it,” said a man who answered the company’s Rochester telephone. He said the contract also forbade him from providing his name.
Hodnett, whose Digital Recognition Network counts Advanced Recovery among its 400-plus “camera affiliates,” isn’t similarly constrained.
Hodnett said he launched the service in 2007 to help repo companies find cars they’d been hired to repossess. If the vehicle wasn’t at the last known address provided by the lender, the repo company could examine archived plate records to see where it might be.
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. “Why not provide free access to law enforcement and maybe save some lives because of it?”
License plate readers spark privacy, public safety debate
In partnership with Vigilant Solutions, a California hardware-maker that provided cameras for Digital Recognition Network’s system and now is the company’s corporate parent, Hodnett launched the National Vehicle Location Service. The service incorporates the private-sector data collected by Digital Recognition Network 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.
According to information from the company, more than 20,000 law enforcement officers have used the system. Vigilant credits the service with helping solve numerous crimes.
But it is not just police that can tap his company’s ever-growing collection of LPR records. The company 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 the company’s database “does not contain any personally identifiable information whatsoever.”
Those statements may be true. 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 the company’s 2.3 billion records.
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 the 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.
The state Thruway Authority, meanwhile, will begin to make use of this motor-vehicle data when the first portion of the new Hudson River bridge at Tappan Zee opens in 2016.
Motorists will be able to cross the toll bridge without slowing to make payments, passing under high-speed E-ZPass scanners and license-plate cameras.
The cameras will capture the plates of motorists who do not have an E-ZPass, and they’ll be billed by mail.
Other use of LPRs isn’t dependent on Department of Motor Vehicle data. Instead, motorists provide personal data themselves.
At Monroe Community College, employees, students and frequent visitors register their plate numbers with the college. Employees gain access to gated lots when cameras match their plate with a number in the college database.
You can’t hide from cops with license-plate scanners
The system replaces the traditional parking stickers in side or rear windows.
Campus security patrols student and visitor lots with license plate cameras, making sure everyone’s parked in the right place. If they’re not, tickets follow.
Plate scan records are discarded after 30 days, she said.
Mapco Auto Parks, which operates parking at Rochester’s airport, is installing a camera system that will provide a double-check on motorists’ honesty.
Now, people take a time-stamped ticket that they present to an attendant when they leave. Mapco co-owner Richard Goldstein said a small number of customers finagle the system by substituting a short-term ticket for a long-term one.
Starting next summer, drivers will still take paper tickets, but a new system will scan plates when a car enters the lot and again when it queues up to leave, and calculate the interval.
If the LPR calculation doesn’t match the ticket time, the attendant will be alerted to possible fraud.
“It’s not about gathering anybody’s information,” Goldstein said. “We’re not snooping on people. Honestly, we don’t care.”
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