Skip to Content
Security & privacy

You won’t believe why the DMV is selling your personal data

As citizens in the digital age, we deal with so many privacy scandals and data breaches that entire books could be filled with stories about them. And it’s not just high profile individuals anymore, either. Between Yahoo’s billions-strong security hack or Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica debacle, nearly everyone you know has probably suffered a privacy breach at some point recently.

Thanks to recent reports, it’s becoming even more clear that you or someone you know has likely had their data accessed without their explicit permission. Only this time, the culprits aren’t criminals or hackers on the internet, but ordinary bureaucrats at agencies nearly every American depends on.

In shocking new reports, multiple DMVs across the country were caught red-handed selling the personal data from driver license applications to third parties. Not only has this information changed hands numerous times without applicants knowing, but it’s also netted these DMVs millions of dollars along the way. Here’s why they’re doing it, as well as what it means for your privacy.

Private eyes get priority access to DMV information

According to an explosive new report from Vice, Departments of Motor Vehicles in states across the country have been selling the personal information of drivers to third parties. Most of these entities are businesses, but the most notable buyers happen to be private investigators, who often start with contacting the DMV when they begin investigating an individual.

For their reporting, Vice obtained hundreds of pages of documents from these DMVs via public records, which revealed that names and addresses are among some of the most commonly accessed data by third parties.

In response to the reporting, DMVs implicated in the stories stated that license photographs and Social Security numbers are not among the data they had granted third parties access to. Gee, thanks.

How is this even legal?

Most people apply for licenses and car registration under the assumption that the DMV is the only organization with access to their information, and perhaps local and state governments as well.

It’s also not illogical to assume that law enforcement such as highway patrol or parking enforcement may want access to these records. As a society of laws, most of us make a tacit assumption that police will have access to this information in some form, and we’ve mostly accepted this as part and parcel of daily life.

But private investigators that track individuals for profit are an entirely different story, as are third-party companies. Surprisingly, however, the letter of the law explicitly allows this kind of exchange of information thanks to the signing of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) during the 1990s.

While it was originally intended to limit access to DMV records exclusively to certified individuals like law enforcement, private investigators, and other related entities, the law was crafted before privacy became the cultural monolith that it is today.

As for the DMV, being an already underfunded chain of bureaucracies, the sale of private data is a massive bonus to their operations budget. One specific branch even reported making more than $77 million on the sale of private data in 2017 alone.

What can be done to keep my driver data private in the future

Being that these organizations operate in tandem with state and local governments, the solution to this situation is more political than personal.

A number of senators and congresspeople have already proposed amending or changing the DPPA to reflect modern attitudes towards privacy, although it’s currently unlikely that a bipartisan consensus will be reached any time soon on the matter.

In light of other recent privacy scandals such as Cambridge Analytica, however, ranking members of congress have taken a closer look at some of the practices of organizations like state DMVs, with Senator Ron Wyden explicitly calling for “[closing] loopholes that are being abused to spy on Americans.”

What you can do in the meantime, however, is focus on cleaning up some of the other excess data floating around about you on the web.

If DMV data is only restricted to a few points of information, it will be worth your while to remove any additional data about you so it’s much less easy for investigators to know your whole life’s story. Click or tap for our guide on how to remove your personal data from people finder sites.

Refer friends, earn rewards

Share your source of digital lifestyle news, tips and advice with friends and family, and you'll be on your way to earning awesome rewards!

Get started