Few notice the "spotter car" from Manny Sousa's repo company as it
scours Massachusetts parking lots, looking for vehicles whose owners
have defaulted on their loans. Sousa's unmarked car is part of a
technological revolution that goes well beyond the repossession
business, transforming any industry that wants to check on the
whereabouts of ordinary people.
An automated reader attached to the spotter car takes a picture of
every license plate it passes and sends it to a company in Texas that
already has more than 1.8 billion plate scans from vehicles across the
But the most significant impact of Sousa's business is far bigger than
locating cars whose owners have defaulted on loans: It is the growing
database of snapshots showing where Americans were at specific times,
information that everyone from private detectives to insurers are
willing to pay for.
While public debate about the license reading technology has centered
on how police should use it, business has eagerly adopted the $10,000
to $17,000 scanners with remarkably few limits.
...Digital Recognition Network of Fort Worth, Texas, claims to collect
plate scans of 40 percent of all US vehicles annually.
Digital Recognition Network, with the help of about 400 repossession
companies across the United States, has increased the number of
license scans in its database tenfold since September 2010, and the
firm continues to add another 70 million scans per month, according to
company disclosures. Digital Recognition's top rival, Illinois-based
MVTRAC, has not disclosed the size of its database, but claimed in a
2012 Wall Street Journal interview to have scans of "a large majority"
of vehicles registered in the United States.
Unlike law enforcement agencies, which often have policies to purge
their computers of license records after a certain period of time, the
data brokers are under no such obligation, meaning their databases
grow and gain value over time as a way to track individuals’ movements
Massachusetts private investigator Jay Groob said he uses the license
plate database kept by a third data broker, TLOxp, paying $25 for a
comprehensive report from the Florida-based company’s "very
impressive" database of a billion-plus scans.
Groob said he would use the database to track a missing person or
conduct background investigations for child custody or marital
infidelity litigation. Groob said he "absolutely" foresees vehicle
location data becoming part of private investigators’ standard toolkit.
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