Debt Collectors Fight Privacy Advocates Over Limits for Automated License Plate Readers

Privacy advocates trying to rein in the use of automated license plate readers have a powerful new opponent: lenders and debt collectors.

LONDON - APRIL 04:  Congestion Zone cameras are seen on April 4, 2008 in London, England. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is looking to introduce a London style congestion charge to alleviate traffic congestion.  (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)

As privacy advocates battle to rein in the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), they’re going up against another industry that benefits from this mass surveillance: lenders and debt collectors.

Police departments and camera technology companies have abetted the rapid deployment of thousands of cameras across the country used to read license plate numbers and document the location and driving patterns of cars on the road. The cameras collect billions of images, but how the data is stored and used differs depending on laws in each city or state.

California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland and other states have proposed laws to better clarify the use of these cameras, which can track the GPS location of every car and transmit registration information to third parties. In Rhode Island, for instance, state Rep. Larry Valencia and state Sen. Gayle Goldin proposed bills in 2014 to prohibit the sale or trade of data collected by ALPRs, and to mandate that the state destroy records after one year.

I filed a records request and found two letters in opposition. One letter came from the Steven G. O’Donnell, on behalf of the Rhode Island State Police, arguing that law enforcement should be able to come up with its own internal procedures to govern the use of ALPRs.

The other letter came from Danielle Fagre Arlow, senior vice president to the American Financial Services Association (AFSA), a trade group for consumer lending companies, some of which target the subprime market.

“Our particular interest in the bill,” Arlow wrote, “is the negative impact it would have on ALPR’s valuable role in our industry – the ability to identify and recover vehicles associated with owners who have defaulted on their loans and are not responding to good-faith efforts to contact them.” Arlow opposed the bill’s restrictions on “how long data can be kept because access to historical data is important in determining where hard-to-find vehicles are likely located.”

AFSA lobbied against several similar bills as they were proposed around the country. In Massachussetts, the group lobbied against a bill designed to destroy ALPR records after 90 days. AFSA argued that such a regime is unfair because “ALPR systems work best when they are used to string together the historical locations of vehicles.”

As BetaBoston reported, Digital Recognition, a leading ALPR company, works with about 400 repossession companies. The firm lists Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC and Citibank among its clients.

According to the ACLU of Rhode Island, the ALPR privacy bill died last session — notably, the bill failed after the consumer lending lobbyists voiced their opposition.

For privacy advocates, it’s one thing to battle the police unions and their significant political clout. The road to reform is much steeper now that financial institutions are involved.

Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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