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Transportation Privacy

Vast Surveillance Network Powered By Repo Men 352

Posted by Soulskill
from the crowdsourced-eyes-and-ears dept.
v3rgEz writes "Even as some police departments curtail their use of license plate scanning technology over privacy concerns, private companies have been amassing a much larger, almost completely unregulated database that pulls in billions of scans a year, marking the exact time and location of millions of vehicles across America. The database, which is often offered to law enforcement for free, is collected by repo and towing companies eager to tap easy revenue, while the database companies then resell that data, often for as little as $25 for a plate's complete recorded history."
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Vast Surveillance Network Powered By Repo Men

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  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:05PM (#46411229) Journal

    The life of a repo man is always intense.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I was talking with a bunch of folks recently, and I pointed out that consumer debt is relatively new. Sure there were layaway plans and credit with an individual store - your tab, but this huge industry that throws money out left and right to basically make us slaves.

      I think many of our societies problems can go back to consumer debt: these invasions of privacy, college costs going through the roof, this treadmill of consumerism: cars, electronics, luxury goods.

      All in all, things were a bit better when cr

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ackthpt (218170)

        Before financing, people had large bank balances in this account type (I swear I amd not making this up) called 'Savings'. Banks actually paid people interest, rather than collecting it on all their debt. The banks borrowed from depositors for loans rather than borrowing from the Federal Reserve for nearly free.

        The concept of this makes the mind reel. I may have to take out a loan and buy myself some aspirin.

        • Re:Consumer debt. (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Timothy Hartman (2905293) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:39PM (#46411667)
          With the low low interest rates you would be a fool not to refinance your house and take out a home equity loan to purchase said aspirin.
          • by tompaulco (629533)

            With the low low interest rates you would be a fool not to refinance your house and take out a home equity loan to purchase said aspirin.

            And with the even lower interest from the Fed, the bank would be a fool to loan you money to refinance your house, rather than just invest their zero percent interest borrowed money back into T-bills.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dagrichards (1281436)
      Lets go do some crimes.
    • by retchdog (1319261) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @04:13PM (#46412023) Journal

      Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate 'em.

    • by queequeg1 (180099)

      Goddamn-dipshit-Rodriguez-gypsy-dildo-punks!

  • I've experienced it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Yup, my SIL got picked off this way. Aparently there are cars that drive through neighborhood recording license plates, and when a license plate matches one that a repo man is looking for, the location is sent forward. She thought she was scot-free because she was living with her BF, but the car got towed anyway. Should have paid her bill...

    • Probably Google streetview cars. Google blanks out plates, obviously not without storing them numerically first.
      • by EvilSS (557649)

        Probably Google streetview cars. Google blanks out plates, obviously not without storing them numerically first.

        Streetview cars don't travel the same routes often enough to be useful for this. They don't hit the same streets over and over in a short time period. These are tow truck operators and repo men running dedicated scanner hardware. Since they operate in the same general areas each day, they can hit the same locations on an ongoing basis, building up multiple datapoints for the same tags.

      • by bobbied (2522392)
        Heck no. Repo guys (and gals) don't need data from Google, it's much too old by the time Google processes it anyway. They just drive down likely streets, searching for "hot" plates when nothing else is going on. Usually they do a bit of investigating too, people generally have limited number of locations they frequent, just ask around some and you can find out where these are. Otherwise, just canvas likely neighborhoods at night. Parking authorities do the same thing within their jurisdiction, canvasing
    • Should have paid her bill...

      Or at least removed/covered the plate.

      If these repo guys are just trolling parking lots looking for plate numbers, I'm betting they aren't going to bother with taking the time to hop out and read a VIN.

  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:12PM (#46411337)
    ... in any modern, developed country.

    Oh wait ...

    • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:23PM (#46411479)

      Takking a photo in public should be freakishly illegal in a "modern, developed country"?

      I thought we got up in arms when the government stopped us from photographing public buildings, and you want to make it possible to sue private citizens taking photos in public? What sort of statist, authoritarian nightmare constitutes "modern" in your world?

      • by sjames (1099)

        The taking a picture part isn't the problem. The problem happens when you collate all those pictures and index them such that it becomes more stalker like in nature.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The taking a picture part isn't the problem. The problem happens when you collate all those pictures and index them such that it becomes more stalker like in nature.

          So you want to ban computers using information in ways you don't like? Good luck enforcing that.

        • The taking a picture part isn't the problem. The problem happens when you collate all those pictures and index them such that it becomes more stalker like in nature.

          Also, I presume that none of these for-profit shutterbugs bothered to get the property owners to sign a release, thereby making the sale of said data de facto illegal.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        We should start building our own database. Cameras pointed at public roads, with say a Raspberry Pi or similar low cost low power computer to do number plate recognition. Upload data to a central database. Obviously it would only be used to track public vehicles, such as local government utility vans, police cars, ambulances etc. Tracking private vehicles would be a gross violation of privacy.

      • Takking a photo in public should be freakishly illegal in a "modern, developed country"?

        Reductio ad absurdum - we're not talking about the practice of innocuous picture-taking, we're talking about onerous collection of personal data into a for-profit database.

        And, FWIW, go try and take some public photos of, say, a courthouse, or better yet, a power station. [americablog.com] You'll discover the "public photography" double standard rather quickly, I assure you.

        Also, here's [about.com] a short article regarding the legal implications of taking pictures in select public places.

    • by ClintJCL (264898)
      What? Any developed country lets me observe what is in public and report on it. That's basically what journalism is, activity-wise.
      • by ewieling (90662)
        You are welcome to observe what goes on in public and report on it. What I don't want you to do is drive around an automated license plate reader and sell the data.
        • by ClintJCL (264898)
          By that logic, I shouldn't be able to sell a picture taken in public because it has peoples' faces in them.

          Sorry, no one gets to control the flow of information they themselves introduced to the public. Sorry, that's not how things can or should or do work.

          • By that logic, I shouldn't be able to sell a picture taken in public because it has peoples' faces in them.

            Unless you had them sign a model release, [wikipedia.org] then yea, you're not allowed to do that.

            Profiting from someone elses likeness without giving them compensation (or at least getting their permission) is already illegal in America.

        • by DaveV1.0 (203135)
          So, you only want people to take pictures you like or use pictures in a way you don't like and every use you don't agree with should be illegal.
        • You are welcome to observe what goes on in public and report on it.

          Thanks.

          What I don't want you to do is drive around an automated license plate reader and sell the data.

          Explain the difference. In the latter case, I'm using tools to more efficiently observe what is going on in public, and reporting those observations to interested parties.

          What's next, singing "Preserve us from the Wheel" in church?

  • Honestly, it is not so much the government snooping that scares me as the private snooping does.

    The government can't afford to spy on us, but the corporations make money doing it. So they can afford to do it more.

    • by gstoddart (321705)

      And then the government can demand the data they don't have the resources to collect on their own.

      So, take your pick ... is it an Orwellian world in which government sees and controls everything, or is it a Cyberpunk dystopia where the corporations do?

    • Honestly, it is not so much the government snooping that scares me as the private snooping does.

      The government can't afford to spy on us, but the corporations make money doing it. So they can afford to do it more.

      Being able to afford something never stopped governments.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      Panopticon, goldfish bowl. If you read Azimov's short story, The Dead Past [wikipedia.org], you realize the problem with a panopticon society isn't that government can watch everything you do. It's that everyone else can watch everything you do.
  • Why?

    Politician runs for office in district A. To meet the residency requirements he claims he lives in his Mom's spare room in District A. License plate scans reveal his car lives in District B - in the parking lot for his mistress's condo.

    • Well realistically the company would offer to "delete" those records in exchange for tax breaks or cash.
  • by wcrowe (94389) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:31PM (#46411567)

    The major problems I see with this is there is no oversight. How accurate are the readers? How accurate are the databases? What recourse is there when they make a mistake? That sort of thing. Without oversight there is vast potential for abuse. The various companies involved need to be licensed and regulated. There needs to be PCI-like compliance for their databases and equipment.

    There are lots of other questions here. Parking lots are by and large on private property. These drivers with the scanners are utilizing the private property for profit. I mean, I can't just set up a booth in Walmart's parking lot and start selling stuff. I would need their permission, for starters, and they would probably want a lease, proof of insurance, etc, etc.

    My worry is that my car will be mistaken for another car on a repo list and towed somewhere. Then it becomes a legal nighmare getting it back, with no prospect for compensation or damages.

    • In all fairness it is private but open to the public like a McDonalds. Yes someone has every right to take back something that doesn't belong to you. If you owe money the car is not YOURS.

      They check the VIN number before towing due to lawsuits and the bank checks the license plates during processing work when they register the licensing fees back to them or the used car dealership it ends up on.

      It sounds evil and messed up and scary if you are in a bad situation with someone trying to take what you think is

    • by bobbied (2522392)

      The major problems I see with this is there is no oversight. How accurate are the readers? How accurate are the databases? What recourse is there when they make a mistake? That sort of thing.

      This is NOT a problem. The accuracy of the collection or the data is of no real concern, except to the one buying the information or the entity compiling it. If a company compiling this information makes a mistake, they will have an unhappy customer who will be less likely to come back and pay them again.

      I don't see how any other party would be harmed by the inaccuracy of the data beyond the buyer and seller of it.

    • by jklovanc (1603149)

      My worry is that my car will be mistaken for another car on a repo list and towed somewhere.

      That would only happen if the tow driver made the same mistake as the scanner. When the scanner pops up the record for the repo and the plates don't match the driver will not take the vehicle.

  • The solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @03:33PM (#46411583)
    Open sources scanner software that works with a cheap USB camera and license plate wiki - that stores every scanned tag with number and state data. How fast do you think it would take legislators to decide it was a bad idea and outlaw scanners? Probably a few seconds after one of their own gets asked some embarrassing questions. The best way to fight such privacy threats is to embrace and extend their use to those in power.
  • I have no problem with a private individual or company doing this.

    I have a big problem with the government, who has the ability to deprive me of my posessions, my freedom, and my life, being able to do this.

    I wonder how else a private company can work with the government to get around restrictions placed on the government?

    • I have no problem with a private individual or company doing this.

      I have a big problem with the government, who has the ability to deprive me of my posessions, my freedom, and my life, being able to do this.

      I wonder how else a private company can work with the government to get around restrictions placed on the government?

      It's not a private company, per se, but private organizations have always been the backbone of oppression in the US. In 1880, right after Reconstruction ended, South Carolina was 60% black. Then the KKK appeared and by 1930 SC was majority white. They didn't actually kill their black minority so it was more ethnic cleansing then genocide, but still. That only worked because the government was unwilling to squish them like they deserved.

      Up north segregation typically had nothing to do with the government. Th

  • by Jade_Butterfly (3564465) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @04:02PM (#46411921)

    I don't think we need regulations that prohibit this kind of data collection by private companies or individuals (the government is a different story). Collecting data nonintrusively shouldn't be illegal, because such laws would have all sorts of nasty side effects.

    Instead of restrictive regulations, we need legislation that empowers people to protect themselves from this kind of thing. For example, maybe the requirement to display a large identifying string of characters on vehicles should be rethought. We don't require people to wear identifying signs around their necks every time they venture out in the public. License plates just make this kind of data collection too easy.

    If our society is unwilling to get rid of license plates entirely, perhaps we could go to electronic ones. Static plates could be replaced by electronic displays that automatically go blank when the car is parked.

    Right now the playing field isn't level. Instead of leveling it by taking rights away, we should give people the ability to easily and legally protect themselves.

    Or perhaps some out-of-the-box thinking would yield practical countermeasures that are already legal. Of course, then the challenge might be keeping those countermeasures from being outlawed.

    • by DaveV1.0 (203135)
      This is collecting data nonintrusively, so at what point would it become illegal?

      We don't require people to wear identifying signs around their necks every time they venture out in the public.

      There aren't a million people who look and dress exactly the same every single second of every day. There is one person who look like you. There are about millions of gold Toyota Camrys.

      Static plates could be replaced by electronic displays that automatically go blank when the car is parked.

      Or, you could just invest in a car cover and put it on your car and over the license plate when you park.

      Instead of leveling it by taking rights away, we should give people the ability to easily and legally protect themselves.

      You mean like being able to obscure one's license plate when the vehicle isn't moving by, say, putting on a car cover? Oddly enough, that is

  • I will be tracked everywhere all the time with these scanners

    Most scanners are mounted on vehicles like parking ticket authorities and tow trucks. The drive up and down the street scanning parked vehicles. There is no way every vehicle will be scanned all the time.

    What about stationary cameras?

    Where would these tow companies place these stationary cameras and get a lot of coverage? Sure they could try to place them on every light pole but I doubt local authorities would approve. Sure they can scan as people come and go from a lot but if you don't want to be scanned don't use the lot.

    I will be tracked everywhere I go

    No, your lice

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday March 05, 2014 @04:39PM (#46412317) Homepage

    I know this is simply the stupidest, most trivial gripe anyone could make but I'm going to put it out just the same:

    Back into parking spots ALWAYS. Do it for for safety. Do it for your car. Do it for convenience. Do it for 'the children.' And now, do it for privacy.

    Many states do not require a license place in the front. I live in one of those states. For those who do, I'm sorry. Lobby for a change. Backing into your parking spots will reduce the likelihood that one of these scanners will record your car's location.

    Backing in for safety is good to be sure the spot is clear when you enter it. You have to drive by the spot before backing in, so you know you aren't about to park in a spot occupied by a person, a motorcycle or one of those ridiculous smart cars. What's more, when you depart your parking spot, you will have the clearest possible view as you enter traffic because you don't have to back into a completely invisible and unknown situation. This also allows you to leave much more quickly since you can see where you are going. That's a great plus since quite often people are in a bigger hurry to leave than they are to arrive.

    Backing in prevents people from hitting your car accidentally as you back out of parking spaces. Can you tell who is coming through that parking lane as you back out? I've seen too many cars hurt this way and it's tragic. And who has TIME to argue about it when you can just form a habit which prevents it all from happening in the first place?

    Backing in means you get to leave going forward. It's not just safer, it's faster. The only potential inconvenience is access to one's trunk or rear storage area. That's probably the only exception to the rule I suppose. If you're planning to load something large, going in forward might be the best way, but it also leave you and your friends and family standing out in the parking lanes waiting for the next jerk-hole to come along and clip you needlessly.

    And backing in means you have less risk of accidentally hurting a child. It's never a complete guarantee as kids just go everywhere, but can you say you did everything in your power if you aren't backing in and pulling out forward? It's when backing OUT kids are injured and killed more often. Those read-facing camera systems are really nice, especially for people who are unable to exercise full motion of their spine and neck. For for everyone else, there is no substitute for real eyes on the scene.

    And now for privacy? Holy crap. Every day we learn there is yet another jerk-hole out there making money by recording and selling information about you. I wish for these people to die in a fire. They simply have no concept of what harm they are bringing to society. They just care about the dollars they can collect and spend on crap they don't need.

    Seriously. Make a new habit if you don't do this already. BACK IN when parking. It's not hard. Just practice at it.

    And here's the best mirror-hack of all time for backing in. Most cars these days have a passenger-side mirror and it's used to see cars which would otherwise be in a blind spot. But you don't need to see the sky with it -- just what's on the road. How about angling that mirror down a bit further so you can see more of the road. When backing into a parking spot, you will be able to see the lines of the parking spot on the other side and if you can still see the body panels of your car on that side, you can even achieve perfect alignment every time by checking if you are parallel to the line and how much room you have on the other side. There are thousand-dollar electronic sensors which serve this purpose but all anyone has to do is angle the passenger-side mirror down a little to get the same thing!!

    Anyway. I hope someone actually reads this and gets something useful from it.

    • by mspohr (589790)

      I've had a few friends who always backed into parking spots... firemen, policemen, ex military, etc. who need to make a quick getaway.
      However, it's much harder to back into a parking place and judge the sides and distance from the end than it is to pull in frontwise. It also takes more time. Much higher chance of hitting something. If you go in frontwise, it's much easier to back out of a space since there is much more room in the driveway to maneuver.
      It's nice that you have mastered the skill but most peop

      • by erroneus (253617)

        I addressed that concern in my diatribe.

        1. It's a skill like any other. You can learn to develop it.
        2. Use the mirror-hack. Angle your passenger-side mirror so you can just see your passenger-side panel and angle it down so you can just see the cars behind you on the road. You don't need to see the roofs of their cars or even the sky for that matter. Seeing what's on the road is far more important and educational. By seeing the ground on the passenger side relative to the passenger side panels, you can

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