Big Brother is watching you – and your license plate number

In 1949, George Orwell wrote his masterpiece "Nineteen Eighty-Four," a classic novel about a society where “Big Brother” watches everything that citizens do.

The predicted year -- 1984 -- may have been off a bit, but Orwell certainly was perceptive about today’s presence of government surveillance.

In eye-opening revelations uncovered as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has learned that U.S. Customs and Border Protection tracks millions of license plates and shares the information with auto insurance companies.

Ginger McCall, director of the privacy center's Open Government Project, says this unnecessary collection of data could affect insurance rates and result in other unexpected repercussions.

license-plates“This information is being widely shared,” McCall says. “U.S. Customs is sharing the information with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which is sharing it with the NLETS (National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System) database. This is a database accessible by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and what we call select partners, which are third-party companies.”

Currently, McCall says, drivers can’t find out what information is being stored so that they can fix mistakes. Also, she says, there’s no way for drivers to find out how the information is being shared or even how long it’s being kept.

What is Customs looking for?

In the documents it obtained, the Electronic Privacy Information Center discovered that U.S. Customs had installed cameras along the Mexican and Canadian borders that read driver’s license plate numbers then check them against a central database. The data collected includes the license plate number, a photo of the vehicle, GPS coordinates, the date and a time stamp.

A U.S. Customs spokeswoman says the cameras help officials recover stolen vehicles and combat drug and firearm smuggling.

U.S. Customs officials often use the cameras to identify stolen vehicles or alleged criminals. As a vehicle approaches the border, the officers run a computer check on the vehicle license plate to determine whether the car has been stolen.

U.S. Customs has shared this data with the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau since 2005 to “prevent and deter vehicle theft,” the spokeswoman says.

Roger Morris, a spokesman for the crime bureau, a nonprofit group supported by the insurance industry that fights insurance fraud and crime, says the data has proven invaluable in catching car thieves.

“Thousands of vehicles are stolen in the U.S. each year and taken to Mexico,” Morris says. Data gathered by license plate readers helps insurers and law enforcement agencies verify that a stolen vehicle has been taken into Mexico, he says, and helps the crime bureau and law enforcement agencies recover the vehicle and bring it back to the U.S.

In 2010, more than 737,000 vehicles were reported stolen in the U.S., according to the crime bureau. However, the bureau doesn’t have data on the number of stolen vehicles taken to Mexico.

Morris says these stolen vehicles represent millions of dollars in insurance losses. Recovering as many as possible helps reduce the effect that thefts have on auto insurance rates, he says.

“By deterring auto theft and returning stolen vehicles that are taken across the border, everyone benefits, except the thieves,” Morris says.

Morris says the U.S. Customs data does not contain personal information about a vehicle’s driver or owner.

Is this all the data is being used for?

While combating vehicle theft may be a legitimate use of the data, Kade Crockford, project director of Technology for Liberty at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, says she’s concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the sharing of information regarding a driver’s travels. The Technology for Liberty project monitors the “interplay between cutting-edge technology and civil liberties.”

“When government shares our intimate information with corporations, we lose access to critical accountability mechanisms,” Crockford says.

So without accountability, how can drivers know how these information-sharing programs work and what privacy risks they pose?

In August 2012, ACLU affiliates in 35 states sent requests to local police departments and state agencies for information on how they use automated license plate readers to track and record drivers’ movements. So far, federal agencies have not responded to the requests, but many local and state law enforcement agencies have, Crockford says.

In addition to U.S. borders, the cameras are mounted on patrol cars and stationary objects along roads throughout the U.S., such as telephone poles and the undersides of bridges. The use of the cameras is spreading rapidly across the country. But the ACLU says authorities have released little information about how extensive the monitoring is and how long the data is stored.

How confidential is the data?

Among the documents the privacy center obtained, the agreement between U.S. Customs and the National Insurance Crime Bureau reveals third-party companies are allowed to handle data entry. The agreement requires these companies to maintain “the highest degree of confidentiality” of the information.

But Crockford and McCall say this agreement offers little consolation for privacy advocates – stressing that the deal between U.S. Customs and the crime bureau lacks transparency. The companies are expected to police themselves and voluntarily report any misuses of the information, Crockford says.

At this point, McCall says, vehicle owners are in the dark about what information is being kept related to their driving habits. As a result, errors in these databases could harm Americans.

“In the past, when there have been errors in law enforcement databases, it has resulted in wrongful arrests,” McCall says.

Similarly, she says, insurance companies that rely on incorrect data in these databases could set auto insurance rates incorrectly.

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