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Privacy United States Transportation

Repo Men Scan Billions of License Plates -- For the Government (washingtonpost.com) 239

The Washington Post notes the billions of license plate scans coming from modern repo men "able to use big data to find targets" -- including one who drives "a beat-up Ford Crown Victoria sedan." It had four small cameras mounted on the trunk and a laptop bolted to the dash. The high-speed cameras captured every passing license plate. The computer contained a growing list of hundreds of thousands of vehicles with seriously late loans. The system could spot a repossession in an instant. Even better, it could keep tabs on a car long before the loan went bad... Repo agents are the unpopular foot soldiers in the nation's $1.2 trillion auto loan market... they are the closest most people come to a faceless, sophisticated financial system that can upend their lives...

Derek Lewis works for Relentless Recovery, the largest repo company in Ohio and its busiest collector of license plate scans. Last year, the company repossessed more than 25,500 vehicles -- including tractor trailers and riding lawn mowers. Business has more than doubled since 2014, the company said. Even with the rising deployment of remote engine cutoffs and GPS locators in cars, repo agencies remain dominant. Relentless scanned 28 million license plates last year, a demonstration of its recent, heavy push into technology. It now has more than 40 camera-equipped vehicles, mostly spotter cars. Agents are finding repos they never would have a few years ago. The company's goal is to capture every plate in Ohio and use that information to reveal patterns... "It's kind of scary, but it's amazing," said Alana Ferrante, chief executive of Relentless.

Repo agents are responsible for the majority of the billions of license plate scans produced nationwide. But they don't control the information. Most of that data is owned by Digital Recognition Network (DRN), a Fort Worth company that is the largest provider of license-plate-recognition systems. And DRN sells the information to insurance companies, private investigators -- even other repo agents. DRN is a sister company to Vigilant Solutions, which provides the plate scans to law enforcement, including police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both companies declined to respond to questions about their operations... For repo companies, one worry is whether they are producing information that others are monetizing.

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Repo Men Scan Billions of License Plates -- For the Government

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  • so what legal tricks can be deployed?

    • Find some road tar and stick it on the plate to change a letter or number.

      • while I do admire the idea, it is illegal to do that.

        looking for a complete legal solution that would work
        9 time out of 10

        and while road tar seems like a great idea, I bet it would
        be only 5 out of 10 times

        • Do what Steve Jobs did and buy a new car every 90 days so you can exploit the loophole of not having to have a numberplate.

          • That doesn't work everywhere. Around here, you can't drive the car off the dealer's lot without it being licensed, registered, and plated (which also means you can't buy a car and drive it off the lot the same day).
            • AND insurance. DMV here will not even touch the title swap/registration paper work unless you have proof of insurance. So you need to get the VIN# and add the car to your insurance BEFORE you purchase/own the car.

        • Good luck for any cop that figures it out. I'll take your bet.

    • by dwywit ( 1109409 )

      Is it legal to have bumper stickers that look like licence plates?

      Put 2 lookalike out-of-state plates on either side of the genuine plate.

      • Ding Ding Ding, we might have a winner.
        but the data is still collected in bulk

        your concept is sound because you can label the side plates as no-plate ( which I believe police still use ) and that's how it's entered into the system

        that's going to fuck up someone's database LOL

    • Well there's Steve Jobs trick, he'd buy a new car and drive it without plates, and after a few weeks when the plates were ready for the car he'd sell back the car and buy a new car without plates and repeat.

    • Do New Mexico and Delaware still have LLC registrations where you don't have to list the owner or is isn't released by public record? That would be my first option. Even an LLC in your own state will make it take an extra database join to match you up.

      Just sell the vehicle to the LLC and create a rental contract for $1 allowing you to have full use of the vehicle and authority over all repairs. Insurance might go up if they think you're using it for business purposes though.

    • Car cover. That is it. Anything else (like faking a digit on the plate) is probably illegal.

      Also of course, a garage... though if I were them cruising parking garages would be standard practice.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Nobody can. Thats the idea. Recall the Domain Awareness System https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

      Don't operate deadly machinery in public.

      Or join an auto club and drive a different car every day.

      There was a time when most people could buy a gallon of milk without carrying any government ID. Since then we've reconfigured our cities around the car so we have to drive everywhere and always be ready to show our driver licenses, all in the name of freedom. Ironic, isn't it?

    • by golodh ( 893453 )
      The short answer seems tobe: you don't because there aren't any legal means to do that.

      You're obligated to ensure your car has a legible license plate with a registration, in some states as soon as you take it on a public road. And as soon as you do that, *anyone* may photograph, capture, database-store, and database-match that number, and sell any resulting information. Nothing you can do about that under US state or federal law.

      The whole purpose of the law pertaining to license plates is to make sure

  • Some device that masks your license plate number from the scanner.
    • Some device that masks your license plate number from the scanner.

      ANPR Circumvention [wikipedia.org].

  • So how about charging them under stalking laws? Or possibly under laws regulating detectives, I recall the RIAA had a case or two tossed out because their "agents" weren't legally detectives.
    • That's an interesting idea. Looking at stalking statutes, this wouldn't be covered. As example statute:

      Sec. 42.072. STALKING. (a) A person commits an offense if the person, on more than one occasion and pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct that is directed specifically at another person, knowingly engages in conduct that [long list of harassment etc]

      Stalking is a repeated pattern of behavior fixated on a specific individual. This is the opposite - trying to see as many cars as possible, with

  • by rnturn ( 11092 ) on Saturday May 19, 2018 @10:20PM (#56640962)

    ... this data, there's nothing from stopping them from buying it from private companies that do their dirty work for them.

    Spirit of the law, schmirit of the law.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      That allows the feds to talk about under oath before any oversight committee that the US federal databases only contain images of past criminals.
      What is for sale on the open market is never mentioned.
  • So they're giving the government a big database of pictures of license plates and cars. Something they already have when they issued the plate. I just skimmed through the summary but I didn't see anything about tying a person, time, or location as info they are selling. Just that they have these scanners to try to find passing my already defaulted cars.

    I just don't see the business model of selling the states info they already have, not that that doesn't mean the state won't buy it anyway.

    • then you did not read near the end,
      they knew a specific car with a specific plate at a specific location had a high probability of being at that location.

      one company collects the data
      another sells it back

      most likely they have something like a peering agreement.

  • by xlsior ( 524145 ) on Sunday May 20, 2018 @02:02AM (#56641494) Homepage
    In parts of California, they wanted to outfit garbage trucks with license plate readers as well: https://www.mercurynews.com/20... [mercurynews.com]
    Even more pervasive, since garbage trucks drive by each and every residential address, every week.
  • This tech is cheap enough now. Someone should able to pay people to mount cameras on their cars and busy homes, feeding into a central database. Then they could run a web site charging for database queries. Journalists are going to know the cars of politicians so I bet they'd find such a thing very useful. Not to mention foreign spies (if they haven't already hacked the existing systems). It's going to take something like this to focus minds more on privacy issues in the US. Are there any current US laws ag

  • "For repo companies, one worry is whether they are producing information that others are monetizing"

    That's their ONLY worry

  • by Artagel ( 114272 ) on Sunday May 20, 2018 @09:24AM (#56642314) Homepage

    The technology presents interesting questions for search and seizure law in the U.S. Currently, in Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court is considering a case where warrantless cell phone tower data for over four months is an illegal search. Scotusblog has a page (the transcript is available as audio or video as the "Tr." or "Aud." under the "Argument" heading).

    The key to Carpenter is that earlier cases held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the metadata about a phone call since the phone company had it. The problem in this case is how much there was -- basically protracted surveillance via cell towers. Even though your license plate is in plain view on streets, perhaps the government cannot engage in protracted surveillance of it without a warrant.

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