In an almost prescient news story, it was disclosed this week that US citizens have been tracked using license plate data by private companies. As I stated in my earlier blog post regarding former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the metadata collected by the NSA for counterterrorism purposes pales in comparison to the information amassed by private companies (see my former post for a much more comprehensive discussion on this).
First, the good news: the “MVTRAC” is an LRP (license plate recognition) system that captures passing license plates of millions of civilians’ vehicles and compiles them into a database. According to an NBC News article, the system is often used in the automobile repossession industry and to find stolen vehicles. At Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento, where I did many book signings over the years, there were 77 car thefts in 2007. After deploying the license plate cameras, there were only a dozen thefts in 2012, and two through the first six months of 2013. “We’re getting the word out: Don’t bring your stolen cars here, and don’t steal cars here,” the mall’s security manager said. In five years, they have captured more than eight million license plates—in the mall’s parking lot alone.
But now the bad news: as you can imagine, there are privacy concerns because the system can track an individual with accuracy. As the NBC News article noted, an MIT study published in March showed that having just four points of mobility data about a person was enough to identify that person with 95 percent accuracy. Think about the location data your cell phone is constantly throwing off. Or, this LRP system.
In accordance with what I wrote in my former post, per the NBC article, Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on free speech, privacy and consumer rights, said that metadata can be used to learn about specific people, especially as more and more of it is amassed. And she noted there’s no oversight over companies in how they set privacy and retention policies. Then there’s the multiplying factor of LPR data, cellphone data, Facebook posts, tweets and other sources of information about an individual. Lynch said:
“This information gets combined with other information and there’s quite a portrait painted of this person.”
Indeed. So where is the outrage? So much was made of the Snowden release of confidential government documents, why not the same reaction to this license plate tracking by private industry? Or the private info aggregated by companies about what we buy, where we shop, where we drive, who we do what with, and when. This is much more damaging to privacy than mere metadata that’s used to keep us safe.
Incidentally, regarding the NSA’s metadata collection, former Rep. Jane Harman, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Snowden “totally self-centered and narcissistic” and said his disclosures had done damage to national security.
“It’s not just the information about these (NSA) programs, much of which was in the public domain: It’s a whole bunch of other stuff which compromises ongoing investigations, which I think is way off.”
As do I.