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September 1, 2016
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September 8, 2016

Automated license plate readers are quietly tracking vehicle movements

If you’re concerned at all about protecting your privacy, you may occasionally think about how your mobile phone is being tracked, and what that data is used for. However, you may not realize how increasingly often the license plates on your vehicle may be photographed and entered into a database.

That suspicious van in the parking garage

As Brian Krebs learned recently, there are many applications for license plate photography, including scanning all vehicles parked in a parking garage. After noticing a suspicious looking van cruising an airport parking garage, he took a photo and approached the driver to find out what he was doing. It turns out he was hired by the parking authority to photograph all the vehicle license plates.

They say it’s used to help people find their cars when they forget where they parked. But do you think they might possibly use that information for other purposes? And can you imagine all the possible places your plates could be photographed?

Collecting license plate data is becoming a big business

There are now private companies that offer technology, virtually for free, to law enforcement and other organizations to gather information about vehicle locations over time. One company in the US has over 2.8 billion plate scans on record, and adds about 70 million scans per month to its database. From a privacy point of view, this is a problem because most privacy regulations aim to inform the subjects of personal data collection of how the data is going to be used, and provide them options for accessing or correcting that data.

Privacy implications of personal data collection without informed consent

Without any checks and balances on collection of plate numbers and their locations, there is the potential for that data to be used for intrusion on personal privacy, or exploitation of the data by organizations that want to gain an advantage over the individual, whether it’s in marketing or possibly in situations where it may be used to later deny an individual access or services based on knowledge of their past travels. Think of how insurance companies, finance companies or other screening systems might discriminate against you without you ever knowing it was putting you at a disadvantage.

What can you do about it?

So, it’s a little sad, but now you should really think about every trip you take, and where your plates might be photographed. There’s not much you can do at this point, but try to avoid taking your vehicle places that could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as “shedding unfavorable light” on your habits, if your vehicle location information was to be tracked by, or shared with, various entities. I suppose using a taxi would solve the problem, but that’s getting pretty expensive. Is this an indicator of the future cost of maintaining our privacy?

Here’s the article on the airport’s automated license plate readers from Brian Krebs, and another from the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) on how law enforcement in Texas is leveraging the technology in unexpected ways.


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