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Mystery Show Debunks License Plate Privacy “Myth”

In her new podcast, Mystery Show, Starlee Kine launches hilariously meandering investigations into the types of quirky, personal mysteries that, while seemingly inconsequential, tend to eat at the edges of a person’s mind. This week, Starlee pursues the question: what’s the story behind the “ILUV911” vanity license plate she once noticed on the back of a Buick during a really long traffic light a few years back?  

Here’s where you deserve a spoiler alert. A big one. (You should listen to "Case #4 Vanity Plate" before proceeding.)

Starlee solves her mystery. But, in the process, she also destroys the chief defense made by the automatic license plate reader (ALPR) industry to counter criticisms that ALPR technology violates personal privacy.

EFF and other civil liberties organizations argue that when police or private companies use ALPR cameras to collect license plate images, which include time and geographical data, it is a form of dragnet location tracking. By showing where you were and when, ALPR logs can reveal very personal details about your life, including your political or religious affiliations, medical conditions, and romantic relationships.

Vigilant Solutions is one of the most aggressive players in the ALPR game. The company outfits police departments across the country with ALPR cameras, while also collecting millions of plate scans in its own giant database. On its website, Vigilant calls privacy concerns a “myth”:

MYTH: LPR Invades Your Privacy

FACT: LPR doesn’t know who you are; it is anonymous data. A string of numbers and letters with a date, time, and location – That is all. It is only with a defined permissible purpose that law enforcement may “link” a license plate to an individual using another system to access DMV data. The act of making this “link” is governed by the Federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.

As the ACLU has noted as far back as 2000, the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) is riddled with loopholes. But, yes,  (very) generally speaking, government agencies are not supposed to release personal details tied to motor vehicle department records to just anyone who asks.  Faced with such restrictions, surely Starlee would throw in the towel, right?

Nope:

My first task was to head to a police station to ask a cop if he could run a complete stranger’s license plate and give me her personal contact info.

At the station, a police sergeant told Starlee that he could run the plate “if the plate was right in front of him, where he could see it, or if he had an official reason to do so.” The fact that Starlee really, really wanted to know who owned the car was apparently not enough.

Next, Starlee went to an investigative reporter friend of hers for advice.

He said it wasn’t a matter of asking the right way. It was a matter of asking the right cop. He knew one who owed him a favor.

The reporter made a call and got the details: the last time the car had a valid registration was from August 2010 to August 2011. But because it wasn’t registered at the moment, he couldn’t get the name of the car’s owner.  However, the record did show an earlier license number, so the reporter asked the cop to run this second plate. This time, they got a name and a post office box. 

The reporter also told Starlee that he had the police officer run the plate of someone who had just side-swiped his own car. It turned out the driver lived just down the block.  As the reporter told Starlee:

In the course of a couple weeks, I’ve run a bunch of license plates. I had only done it once before in my life, but now I feel like I’m running license plates all the time.

With the new information obtained through the unnamed police officer, Starlee was able to track down the driver’s home address. She sent the driver a letter introducing herself, and when she didn’t receive a response, she conducted a mini stakeout in front of the person’s home. She spotted the Buick hidden in the back and knocked on the driver’s door.

We won’t spoil the big reveal here, except to say that the driver’s story was very personal and the driver was somewhat protective of their privacy. 

Perhaps Starlee just didn’t think of it, but the reporter could’ve asked his cop-friend to break the rules once more by running the plate through an ALPR database. Then she could have potentially learned much more about the mysterious driver, such as where they go to church or what doctor they routinely visit, all depending on how many cameras caught the “ILUV911” plate.

It wasn’t her goal, but Starlee succeeded in proving that Vigilant’s “myth” isn’t a myth at all.  While there may be certain limits in place to protect driver records, all you really need is someone on the force who owes you a favor. 

Vigilant downplays the fact that police around the country are frequently caught inappropriately accessing sensitive databases. In reality, the only way to fully prevent ALPR information from being leaked or breached is not to collect this data in the first place.

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