Some consumers have heard of Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) cameras, the high-speed, computer-controlled technology that automatically reads and records vehicle license plates. Local governments have installed ALPR cameras on stationary objects such as street-light poles, traffic lights, overpasses, highway exit ramps, and electronic toll collection (ETC).
Mobile ALPR cameras have been installed on police cars and/or police surveillance vans. The Houston Police Department explained in this 2016 video how it uses the technology. Last year, a blog post discussed ALPR usage in San Diego and its data-sharing with Vigilant Solutions.
What you probably don't know: the auto repossession industry also uses the technology. Many "repo men" have ALPR cameras installed on their vehicles. The data they collect is fed into a massive, nationwide, and privately-owned database which archives license-plate images. Reporters at Motherboard obtained a private demo of the database tool to understand its capabilities.
The demo included tracking a license plate with the vehicle owner's consent. Vice reported:
"This tool, called Digital Recognition Network (DRN), is not run by a government, although law enforcement can also access it. Instead, DRN is a private surveillance system crowdsourced by hundreds of repo men who have installed cameras that passively scan, capture, and upload the license plates of every car they drive by to DRN's database. DRN stretches coast to coast and is available to private individuals and companies focused on tracking and locating people or vehicles. The tool is made by a company that is also called Digital Recognition Network... DRN has more than 600 of these "affiliates" collecting data, according to the contract. These affiliates are paid a monthly bonus for gathering the data..."
Affiliates are rep men and others, who both use the database tool and upload images to it. DRN even offers financing to help affiliates buy ALPR cameras. The image on the right was taken from the site on September 20, 2019.
When consumers fail to pay their bills, lenders and insurance companies have valid needs to retrieve ( or repossess) their unpaid assets. Lenders hire repo men, who then use the DRN database to find vehicles they've been hired to repossess. Those applications are valid, but there are plenty of privacy issues and opportunity for abuse.
First, the data collection is indiscriminate and broad. As repo men (and women) drive through cities and towns to retrieve wanted vehicles, the ALPR cameras mounted on their cars scan all nearby vehicles: both moving and parked vehicles. Scans are not limited solely to vehicles they've been hired to repossess, nor to vehicles of known/suspected criminals. So, innocent consumers are caught in the massive data collection. According to Vice:
"... in fact, the vast majority of vehicles captured are connected to innocent people. DRN claims to have more than 9 billion license plate scans, according to a DRN contract obtained by Motherboard..."
Second, the data is archived forever. That can provide a very detailed history of a vehicle's (or a person's) movements:
"The results popped up: dozens of sightings, spanning years. The system could see photos of the car parked outside the owner's house; the car in another state as its driver went to visit family; and the car parked in other spots in the owner's city... Some showed the car's location as recently as a few weeks before."
Third, to facilitate searches metadata is automatically attached to the images: GPS or geolocation, date, time, day of week, and more. The metadata helps provide a pretty detailed history of each vehicle's -- or person's -- movements: where and when a vehicle ( or person) travels, patterns such as which days of the week certain locations are visited, and how long the vehicle (or person) parked at specific locations. Vice explained:
"The data is easy to query, according to a DRN training video obtained by Motherboard. The system adds a "tag" to each result, categorising what sort of location the vehicle was likely spotted at, such as "workplace" or "home."
So, DRN can help users to associate specific addresses (work, home, school, doctors, etc.) with specific vehicles. How accurate might this be? While that might help repo men and insurance companies spot fraud via out-of-state registered vehicles whose owners are trying to avoid detection and/or higher premiums, it raises other concerns.
Fourth, consumers -- vehicle owners -- have no control over the data describing them. Vehicle owners cannot opt out of the data collection. Vehicle owners cannot review nor correct any errors in their DRN profiles.
That sounds out of control to me.
The persons which the archived data directly describes have no say. None. That's a huge concern.
Also, I wonder about single females -- victims of domestic violence -- who have protective orders for their safety. Some states, such as Massachusetts, have Address Confidentiality Programs (ACPs) to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalkers. Does DRN accommodate ACP programs? And if so, how? And if not, why not? How does DRN prevent perps from using its database tool? (Yes, DRN access is an issue. Keep reading.) The Vice report didn't say. Hopefully, future reporting will discuss this.
Fifth, DRN is robust. It can be used to track vehicles near or in real time:
"DRN charges $20 to look up a license plate, or $70 for a "live alert", according to the contract. With a live alert, a user can enter a license plate they wish to receive updates on; when the DRN system spots the vehicle, it'll send an email to the user with the newly discovered location."
That makes DRN highly appealing to both valid users (e.g., police, repo men, insurance companies, private investigators) and bad actors posing as valid users. Who might those bad actors be? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned:
"Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data can paint an intimate portrait of a driver’s life and even chill First Amendment protected activity. ALPR technology can be used to target drivers who visit sensitive places such as health centers, immigration clinics, gun shops, union halls, protests, or centers of religious worship."
Sixth, is the problem of access. Anybody can use DRN. According to Vice:
"... a private investigator, or a repo man, or an insurance company does not need a warrant to search for someone's movements over years; they just need to pay to access the DRN system, or find someone willing to share or leverage their access..."
Users simply need to comply with DRN's policies. The company says that, a) users can use its database tool only for certain applications, and b) its contract prohibits users from sharing search results with third parties. We consumers have only DRN's word and assurances that it enforces its policies; and that users comply. As we have seen with Facebook data breaches, it is easy for bad actors to pose as valid users in order to doo end runs around such policies.
What are your opinions of ALPR cameras and DRN?