Massive license plate location database just like Instagram, Digital Recognition Network insists

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Dickelbers - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

At a state house hearing before the Massachusetts Joint Transportation Committee Wednesday afternoon, the chief executive of the largest license plate scan database in the country insisted that license plate recognition technology is “simply photography.”

“It’s taking a picture that has no expectation of privacy and is in public view,” said Chris Metaxas, chief executive of Digital Recognition Network based in Fort Worth, Texas, while speaking about the high-speed scans the technology takes of passing vehicles. “License plate reader technology stores these pictures just like people store pictures on Instagram, which are available for all to see.”

Metaxas was the sole witness to testify against a bill that would regulate use of license plate readers. His company oversees a nationwide network of license plate reader cameras operated by repo agents, many of whom collect their geotagged “pictures” of license plates in shopping mall parking garages, office park lots, and residential parking facilities.

DRN’s database currently stores 1.8 billion vehicle location records, and its network adds 70 million scans each month. Beyond operating a common database of vehicle sightings for the repossession industry, DRN also sells this data and analysis to insurance companies, banks and law enforcement nationwide.

A bill proposed by state Senator Cynthia Creem (D – Newton) and state Representative Jonathan Hecht (D – Watertown)  would put a number of restrictions on license plate readers. If passed, the bill would ban most uses of the technology, making exceptions only for law enforcement, toll collection, and parking regulation.

“You really don’t have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine possible abuses of ALPR data – especially without any statutory protections in place,” Creem told the committee.

Metaxas characterized the bill as “a reaction to misinformation and scare tactics provided by advocacy groups,” insisting that license plate numbers are anonymous and that there are already protections in place.

“If I held up a license plate,” he said, “you could not tell me anything personal or identifiable about the individual unless you broke the law.”

License plate scan companies argue that the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1994, adequately guards against abuses of the technology. DPPA limits the disclosure of Registry of Motor Vehicles information that connects a particular plate to an individual.

Supporters of restrictions countered that DPPA allows a wide range of permissible uses, and that RMV listings are not the only way to tie a plate to an individual.

“The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act does say that there are certain circumstances in which you can access information from the RMV,” testified Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has consulted closely on the bill. “But those circumstances are very expansive. It allows access not merely for solving major crimes, however you might characterize those, but for all kinds of access by government and other entities.”

Banks, insurance companies and private investigators, three common purchasers of license plate scan data, all have access to RMV data in Massachusetts.

“License plates are also not anonymous in our daily lives,” said Wolfe. “You know the license plates of your neighbors. You know the license plate of your kids, or your ex. This information really is not anonymous.”

DRN has filed suit against the state of Utah over a similar ban on commercial use of license plate scanning, claiming that the company has a First Amendment right to photograph license plates in public view.

A handful of civil liberties and privacy groups also testified in support of restrictions, including the American Friends Service Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Law enforcement representatives were notably absent among witnesses. Creem and Hecht’s bill would drastically limit data retention to 48 hours except by court order for the sixty-plus departments that use license plate readers across Massachusetts. In December, Boston police suspended their use of plate scanners altogether after a Globe investigation reported questionable data management, including the accidental public release of more than 69,000 ­license plate numbers that had been scanned over six months.

Committee members expressed eagerness to balance legitimate uses of the technology with their constituents’ privacy concerns.

“This affects everybody in this room — whether they’re aware of it or not, people are keeping track of them,” said Representative William Strauss (D – Mattapoisett), one of the committee chairs. “Between law enforcement use of the technology and private sector use of the technology, and the corresponding data retention, access and use.”

“There is a strong interest, and a bipartisan interest,” he said, “to act on this proposal. There is a legislative role in our system of government to define the constitutional issues in play here.”