Private companies could be tracking the places your vehicle has been, all with the help of license plate scanners.
Police use license plate scanners to catch criminals and stolen cars, but now, private individuals are outfitting their cars with scanners, driving around scanning plates, and then selling that data to private databases and repo companies, putting your location information out there for people all over the world to see.
A FOX10 News employee found someone doing just that in Mobile earlier this month, taking cell phone video of an unmarked car with automatic license plate readers driving around in the McGowin Park shopping center.
The FOX10 News employee spotted the outfitted car in the parking lot of a store, and asked the driver what she was doing.
She said she was working for Google Maps, but when the employee told her Google Maps doesn’t scan plates, she asked, “why is it your business anyway?” Then, she drove off.
Clearly, she doesn't work for Google, or else the company says her car would be marked with a Google logo.
So, what is she doing?
Experts said a lot of people scanning plates are working for repo companies, looking for vehicles wanted for repossession.
FOX10 News Investigates found at least three different repo companies in Mobile use the technology.
So you pay your car note every month, no need to worry, right?
Well, some experts say you should still be concerned, because many people scanning plates are selling your car's location information to companies, which put that information into a database, so people all over the world can see the different locations where your car was photographed.
"That data overtime can reveal a lot of information about a person. It can reveal what church you go to, what doctors you go to, what political meetings you go to, where are you sleep at night, be that at in your home or somewhere else,” said Chad Marlow with the American Civil Liberties Union.
A private investigator used one of those databases to search for a FOX10 News vehicle.
It was captured 11 different times around Mobile over the last year.
The database shows the photograph of the car, along with the time and date the plate was scanned, but it does not reveal who drives or owns the vehicle.
Rich Robertson is a private investigator in Phoenix, Arizona.
He said the database is a helpful tool in his toolbox.
“We were looking for a woman in Arizona, all indications were that she was at particular addresses, but she didn't show up there, and by using license plate readers, we discovered that she had been seen at an apartment complex in Las Vegas within the last week or two, so we sent an investigator to Las Vegas, and sure as heck, that's where we found her,” said Robertson.
Some folks in Mobile weren't so comfortable with the idea of their information being out there for people to see, some even questioning whether or not the practice is legal.
So is it legal in Alabama?
"It's creepy... just feels wrong, people don't really expect to be tracked everywhere they go,” said Judson Crump, a collection defense attorney in Mobile who goes after irresponsible repo companies.
While he's concerned, Crump said he sees no legal issues with someone scanning plates in a parking lot of a store, or even an apartment complex.
"It's a place of public accommodation... there's nothing illegal about that, and you would not really have any expectation of privacy there, so I don't think there's any legal problem with them doing that. Same with public roads,” Crump explained.
He did, however, add a caveat.
“Now if they are going to private property, that would be different,” said Crump.
So far, 14 states have passed laws regulating the practice in a variety of ways. Some states have even outlawed the use of license plate readers by private individuals, only giving law enforcement the ability to use the technology.
Marlow with the ACLU said he wants more regulations in place to ensure citizens' privacy is protected, and suggested folks call their local legislators and ask for a change in the law if they have concerns.
"We live in a time where our population is very politically divided, but one area we are not divided on is on privacy, people on the left and on the right all have concerns about these mass privacy intrusions. Privacy is still an issue where there remains a strong consensus across the aisle, so I think people should take that as an opportunity to work both locally and on a state level to make sure privacy policies are in place to protect the people of Alabama,” explained Marlow.
However, Robertson said even without laws in place, companies use the information responsibly.
"There's very strict justifications for using this information, and we have to document that every time,” he said.
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