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Security & privacy

Your license plate may be tracked in a massive surveillance database

A private company has amassed a huge database of billions of license plate scans that could include yours. The revelation of the database has privacy advocates and others alarmed.

They say the database could be used to stalk people and has already become a mass surveillance system that can provide a host of data to law enforcement. Cameras have captured so many images of license plates that a single car’s location can be tracked for years.

We’ll tell you the surprising source of these images, as well as look into how the database can be abused.

Who’s behind the database

So who’s been taking photos of license plates and uploading them to the database? Repo men. That’s according to a report in Motherboard.

Called the Digital Recognition Network, the database is crowdsourced by hundreds of repo men across the country. They have installed cameras in their vehicles that passively scan, capture and upload to the database the plates of every car they drive by. To date, there are 9 billion images in the database.

On top of that, the camera also tags each vehicle’s time and GPS coordinates. That means every time a repo truck passes you on a street or highway your license plate will be scanned again and again building a chronological map of your movements.


Related: How to protect your privacy on neighborhood sites like Nextdoor


You may be asking yourself why a repo man would be scanning your license plate when you’re not behind on your payments. Again, the cameras are designed to passively scan every license plate they see, so in effect, the database has turned into a national surveillance system.

Access to the database is available to individuals and companies for a fee. They can search the database for a particular car and track its movements over months and even years. The company that operates the access tool is also called Digital Recognition Network (DRN).

The repo men are called “affiliates” of DRN and there are 600 of them. They are paid a monthly bonus for the data they collect.

In a contract obtained by Motherboard, DRN customers cannot use the data for non-business purposes or provide access to a third party without DRN’s permission. Customers have to comply with all laws, as well as DRN regulations and rules.

DNR’s sister business, Vigilant Solutions, sells DNR’s technology to government agencies, including law enforcement.

Is your privacy being violated?

You may feel like DNR is violating your privacy but legally it’s not. For starters, scans of your license plate are taken in public, where you have almost no expectation of privacy. Also, DNR is in the private sector, as are its customers, so it is not subject to upholding Constitutional rights.

It’s a different story for government agencies. Some prosecutors have argued that since the photos do not violate the First Amendment they are fair game for police to use.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others have argued in court that while yes, the photos were taken in public cases, law enforcement and other government agencies must obtain a warrant in order to access historical information in the database in order to protect the public’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Related: Our privacy doesn’t matter to big tech companies


But remember, we live in a society where departments of motor vehicles can legally sell the information on your driver’s license application to third parties. We live in a society where 21 states allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to scan photos on driver’s licenses to train artificial intelligence systems for facial recognition.

We even willingly bring into our home devices that record our every word and can see our every movement. To regain some measure of privacy we have to wait for laws to catch up with technology.

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