Automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) is a hot topic again. This time it’s not local law enforcement but a government agency raising ALPR concerns.
New documents released by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), under a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), show the agency has been operating a massive national license plate reader program with major civil liberties concerns.
The recovery industry has been a responsible user of ALPR technology. But if repo agents haven’t thought about the larger civil liberty issues involved, and how it might effect their business, now is the time.
The documents reveal the DEA is operating the National License Plate Recognition initiative, which connects DEA license plate readers with those of other law enforcement agencies around the country. The ACLU summarized its concerns this way:
… this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country—and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives (particularly if combined with other data about individuals collected by the government, such as the DEA’s recently revealed bulk phone records program, or cell phone information gleaned from U.S. Marshals Service’s cell site simulator-equipped aircraft). Data-mining the information, an unproven law enforcement technique that the DEA has begun to use here, only exacerbates these concerns, potentially tagging people as criminals without due process. (1)
From the findings, it’s clear that the DEA database includes scan data from its readers and others. The DEA has invited federal, state and local law enforcement agencies around the country to contribute location information to the database.
Through the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), the DEA database also shares plate-scan records with any participating police agency—federal, state or local—that is a vetted EPIC user. This is according to a May 2010 email released in the ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. (2)
For example, with the Customs and Border Protection, the DEA has a memorandum of understanding that states the two agencies will share license plate reader data “at regular intervals.” It’s not known, though, if the U.S. Congress funded this work.
A Public-Private LPR Database. Is It Possible?
It’s thought that Vigilant Solutions has the largest private corporate database of license plate reader data. With national reader data sharing already happening among law enforcement agencies, the ACLU posed these questions:
Has the DEA used or attempted to use Vigilant Solution’s National Vehicle Location Service or a similar privately run license plate reader database?
Does [the] DEA combine information from its own database with records in Vigilant’s, creating a mega-database in a public-private surveillance partnership? (1)
The Court of Public Opinion
The Wall Street Journal’s Jan. 26, 2015, piece “U.S Spies on Millions of Drivers” references the repossession industry:
License plate readers are already used in the U.S. by companies to collect debts and repossess vehicles, and by local police departments to solve crimes. (2)
In a leading publication read by millions, the article mentions the repossession industry with “spies” in the title. It’s not a casual reference. The readers’ takeaway could easily be that collections, repossession and law enforcement—nobody else—use license plate readers. Therefore, it’s a short hop for a reader to paint our industry as guilty by association with these secret surveillance programs.
As I’ve written in BellesLink’s previous ALPR articles, this real or imaginary link between automobile recovery and the unwarranted surveillance of private citizens poses a risk to repossessors and their recovery clients. In the court of public opinion, in a world of ready, fire, aim, where a lie makes its way around the world in five minutes on social networks, the automobile recovery industry risks being heavily criticized.
Reducing ALPR Risks for the Industry
ALPR has clear benefits for the recovery industry and its clients. However, if the civil liberty concerns fueled by the DEA and local law enforcement plate scanning connect back in any way to the private LPR systems that repossessors contribute to, the industry will find itself in a public relations quagmire.
If public opinion is the only place where these public and private systems are connected, then the industry needs to get out in front of its skis and inform its members, clients and critics of the facts. Successfully adapting to Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) compliance regulations proved the integrity and professionalism of the recovery industry. I suggest our professional associations and industry leaders treat this issue as a similar opportunity.
Industry associations and leaders need to take proactive positions on the legal and technical issues involved. They also should have a seat at the table for best practices definitions. Questions should be asked of LPR partners to be sure their operations are supporting the long-term interests of recovery companies and their clients.
- Data retention: Who stores scan data and for how long?
- Data collection: Are all plate scans saved or only those out for repo?
- Data security: Are LPR data repositories secure enough to prevent a large-scale data breach such as Target and Sony?
- Data sharing: Which private and/or public entities are given access to scan data?
Reducing ALPR Risks for the Repossessor
The associations and the ALPR players should address the civil liberty concerns we’ve discussed. What should be front and center for the repossessor is profitability. As ALPR emerged as a valuable tool, it arrived as proprietary systems tied to exclusive contracts. Over the years, recovery agents have struggled to keep LPR systems profitable under the terms of contracts that left them “locked in.” Given the increased costs of compliance and the capital investment required to build a competitive LPR repo operation, difficulties creating profits present a huge risk for repossessors. Fewer choices for repossessions cannot be good for business.
Proprietary LPR systems aren’t in the best interests of business. The competition for camera space on a repossession vehicle is heating up. Agents, not ALPR companies, should decide this competition. ALPR companies should compete for agents’ business, not lock agents into proprietary contracts.
New business models, which potentially represent a better deal for agents, are gaining traction. This means the repo company will face less risk and come out ahead. That ultimately means recovery clients will also come out ahead.
Like all other issues of personal privacy in this digital age, ALPR will remain in the headlines until the industry adopts best practices. We believe it’d be a mistake to wait for legal and regulatory standards to control its use in the public and private sectors.
This is our last piece on ALPR. When I decided to do this, my goal was to pay it forward by sparking discussion that I felt was needed and in the best interests of the repossession industry. I believe that happened.
When a colleague of mine was in college, he asked his computer science professor if computers would become too powerful. The professor scoffed and said, “No, all you have to do is unplug it!”
- (1) FOIA Documents Reveal Massive DEA Program to Record American’s Whereabouts With License Plate Readers, www.aclu.org
- (2) U.S. Spies on Millions of Drivers Additional Links, www.wsj.com
- Secret Federal Government Program Tracks Millions of Motorists, www.autoblog.com
- Setting the Record Straight on DHS and License Plate Tracking, www.aclu.org
- You Are Being Tracked, www.aclu.org