Auto Spying 

Virginia lawmakers are fighting against the use of license-plate scanners by police. But what about the people privately watching your whereabouts?

click to enlarge news_license_plate.jpg

The use of license-plate scanners by police and other government agencies sparked debate in the General Assembly this year. But what about the same kind of surveillance technology in the hands of private residents?

Privately owned sedans equipped with the scanners have been spotted across Richmond. They’ve been trolling city streets and parking lots, presumably collecting license-plate numbers and recording where they were spotted.

A report on the practice, published by the American Civil Liberties Union, describes how a network of private companies feeds into massive databases kept by companies serving the repo and debt-collection industries.

A company called Digital Recognition Networks boasts of scanning 80 million license plates a month in 300 major markets, including Richmond. “Find the car, collect the debt,” the company’s website advertises.

The company charges for access to its database. Anyone who’s willing to pay can punch in a license plate number and see everywhere it’s been spotted and when.

“Cameras simply automate a process that has been done manually for years — capturing publicly [visible] and publicly available information,” the company’s website says.

“Because the camera is photographing license plates in public locations visible for all to see,” it says, “there is no expectation of privacy in the data we collect. We take those images and plug them into solutions and that data becomes valuable for a variety of purposes that range from recovering the vehicle to fraud detection.”

A company representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In Utah, the legislature passed laws banning the practice. But following a lawsuit, lawmakers amended the rules to prevent only police from using the plate scanners.

In Virginia, lawmakers haven’t addressed the use of readers by private companies.

“It hasn’t come up here, but I’ve heard of it,” says Sen. Chap Petersen, who introduced legislation to limit the use of readers by the government in Virginia. “It may be the next step in the battle to keep people free from being under constant scrutiny.”

Petersen’s legislation passed the General Assembly overwhelmingly but is stalled pending action by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. As passed by the legislature, the law would require the government to purge data collected by readers within seven days, except in cases where it has a pending criminal case or search warrant.

McAuliffe sent the bill back to the legislature at the end of March with an amendment that changed the length of time the state can keep data to 60 days. The legislature rejected his amendment.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, says her organization has been pushing McAuliffe to sign the legislation as-is.

Regarding license plate readers used by private residents, Gastañaga says her organization hasn’t taken a position. But the practice raises issues, she says, especially if police can simply tap into the private databases to sidestep legislation meant to limit access to such data.

“In this case,” she says, “our biggest concern is that they’re building a big database that we would not want the police or government agents to have access to without some kind of judicial process.” S


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