Private license-plate scanners invade our privacy — but recovered my car

Cameras on the road

Imagine a world where your daily travels can be bought and sold to anyone who is interested in tracking you.

Sound far-fetched? It's not when it comes to your daily driver.

There are now nearly a billion stored, digitized images of license plates throughout the United States. This, along with the temporary storage of hundreds of millions of other plates, represents a new market of public information that can be accessed by nearly anyone who has an interest in your whereabouts.

The bank that finances your car. Your employer. An attorney seeking damages. Or even a private investigator seeking a skeleton or two in your closet. They all can find out where you have been, and even where you are likely to go in the near future. The opportunity to capitalize on this public information is also far quicker than you would imagine.


 I know it can work this quickly for one reason: I have personally used this tech to reclaim my own property.

License-plate scanner on a police car. Photo: AP
License-plate scanner on a police car. Photo: AP

Digital Recognition Network, an information provider to banks and auto finance companies, tells its clients who are seeking to find their vehicles: "Your authorized agents receive real-time alerts when in the vicinity of your asset. Within minutes the vehicle identity is validated, an assignment order transmitted and the asset secured."

As a car dealer in rural Georgia, I recently had to recover one of my own vehicles, a Honda Civic, from the most difficult type of person to repossess a car from — a repo man.

Unfortunately, we coexist in society alongside folks who regularly steal, hide, and lie their way through life because they know our legal system will protect them. In my particular case, this meant that I would have to send a 10-day demand letter asking to have my asset returned, then file a warrant application, then wait for two months, meet with a judge, and hopefully convince him or her that the thief never had any intention to pay me.

Finally, after three months of paperwork and waiting, I would hope that my car was still located at the same property listed on the bill of sale. If the offending party had moved, or was just hiding my vehicle elsewhere, I would have to head right back to square one and start the entire process over again.

Thanks to the license plate readers and the storing of the Civic's whereabouts, I was able to get back my property, which had turned out to be driven by the thief's brother. What had been three months of legal work and aimless searching turned into a quick and painless process.

Predatory practices, whether it is an individual, a business, or a public agency, is one of many concerns that makes the recording of digitized license plates a double-edged sword.

In Montgomery County, Md., one police officer was able to scan nearly 50,000 license plates over a four-day period. On the good side, four stolen vehicles were recovered and 26 drivers with suspended driver’s licenses (and others with no insurance coverage) were identified and cited. For those who have lost their vehicles to uninsured motorists and criminals, license plate readers can, in many scenarios, be a definite savior.

However, this type of technology can easily turn into a lucrative boon which turns law-abiding citizens into unwitting targets. In the example above, there were also 255 traffic citations issued. More than a few of those were related to emissions-equipment violators who, to be frank, are often driving an older vehicle just to get by.

License plate readers are not cheap, costing up to $100,000 each. This represents a considerable investment that often requires a high level of traffic enforcement revenue or data sales in order to offset the expense. But strained public safety budgets don’t represent the sole market for this technology – businesses are also starting to invest in it.

The unfortunate truth is that there is no privacy for a license plate on a public road. License plate readers and the digitized storage of these records can certainly lower crime and the cost of doing business; if I have to use it again to recover stolen property, I will do so without pause. The question is whether public surveillance will be used within reason, or whether this represents one more giant step towards the permanent undoing of what Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis termed, “the right to be left alone...the right most valued by civilized men."