Legislature to consider banning most private license-plate scanners

BetaBoston (the new Globe tech site) reports on growing national databases of license-plate scans that let repo men, banks and, well, any company with the money to spend track your whereabouts.

State Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) has filed a bill that would outlaw the practice in Massachusetts. The industry warns this would make Massachusetts a lawless enclave roamed by the worst criminals from everywhere, because, of course, license-plate scanners are all that stand between us and the fall of civilization.

Boston Police suspended its scanner program after it accidentally handed over data to Muckrock.

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    Comments

    Don't get it

    By on

    I don't see any "legitimate expectation of privacy." License plates are the opposite of private. It's like claiming the number on the side of my house is private.

    PS BetaBoston is a terrible name

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    In my opinion, license plates

    By on

    In my opinion, license plates aren't a tool for public consumption, they are used to identify compliance with regulation and for law enforcement identification purposes. I see no reason to promote or enable private enterprise to take advantage of this otherwise required means of identification.

    Totally agree on BetaBoston by the way - trying way to hard and failing!

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    Even if I'm forced to

    By on

    Even if I'm forced to identify myself by law? I don't expect privacy here, but would like it.

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    You are not your car

    We need to get that straight - your car's license plate identifies your car. It does not identify you. You are required to identify your car by law.

    My household has one car, but three drivers (and four people of driving age). I also inherited a car that a relative in another state is currently using and it is registered in both of our names.

    Where these cars move and when doesn't say much about where I am and when. That's because their license plates identify them, not me.

    In MA, this works both ways - it is part of the basis of why we don't have electronic ticketing from red light cameras and speed cameras. Just because your car was speeding doesn't mean that you were driving it.

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    apt parking lots are not public

    By on

    Did you read the article? Im guessing no because the license scanning company said two of their "sweet" spots are shopping malls (private) and apartment complex parking lots (private). Even so, are you saying you are OK being surveilled at all times, and that information being available to anyone (not just for repo) any time you are in public? A list of all the places you (by tracking your phone, license plate, credit card use, ATM use, EZ pass, subway pass) you have gone permanently available to anyone who wishes to purchase it? I dont think most people are comfortable with that, but you may very well be the exception.

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    With the exception of gated communities

    By on

    the majority of apartment complex parking lots are generally accessible by the public, therefore, they are not "private". Same goes for shopping mall parking lots, which are obviously not "private" because they are open and accessible to the public. And we're talking about repo men tracking down people who are in default on their car loans (as I understand it, you have to be seriously in default for them to call Mr. Repo Man), not police officers stopping and searching Joe Citizen for no good reason. With respect, that's hardly a segment of the population to expend this "privacy rights eroding away" paranoia on.

    But let's waste everyone's time and our tax money debating more unnecessary and pointless legislation that, if passed, will result in yet another law that's impractical to enforce and puts more needless restrictions on legitimate businesses. After all, it's not like there are far mopre pressing issues for our lawmakers to tackle.

    And, for the record, I use a smartphone and have both a CharileCard and an E-ZPass. Yes, I am well aware that these devices can be used to track my movements. But I'm not going to lose any sleep over this because - guess what - all those movements were done on PUBLIC facilites (MBTA, toll roads, and the like). And if some private company wants that information for whatever purpose - so what?

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    You do not understand public

    By on

    You do not understand public vs private. Private property (a store, an apt parking lot, a mall) can be open the public but it is not public, it is private space open to the public. And if you read the article you would understand that its NOT just repo men, the information can be collected by the repo man or whomever else, but is available for sale to anyone (ie a stalker, a PI) who pays. You can go online and pay to see where a certain license plated vehicle has been.
    Read the article and THEN comment. Its not just repo men looking for cars when then dispose of the data.

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    Your folly

    By on

    Except you don't leave your EZPass or CharlieCard in the PUBLIC facilities. Which means they can be read in private locations too, like an office building, once you go somewhere you would expect privacy and not to be tracked.

    Also, what if it's not some private company but just some private individual?

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    A few differences here....

    1. If the bank owns your car, it's their car. They should have the right to find it if you don't make your payments. They know the license plate number, and are basically using technology to find those license plate numbers.

    2. The bank (or repo service, or private company) is only going to know which plates (cars) they own. If they go down a street and "record" all the license plates on that street, only the one they own will pop up and show them who the owner is. All the other plates are just what they are, a set of random numbers (35FH88), and the bank has no idea who they belong to, where they have been, or if they belong to that car.

    3. If a police department has a plate reader, then every single cars owner can be accessed and can be stored. With that owners information comes that persons drivers history, criminal record, warrant situation, previous car ownership, previous license history in other states, etc, etc.

    4. In theory, a police department or government agency can buy the "list" from the private company, and they can then find out who owns those cars and find further information.

    5. In terms of private complexes, legally the people who live there can say who is allowed on the property. This type of trespass law has all sorts of different issues, especially when it comes to repo men. Usually repo men go to a police department and tell them they are getting their property. Vehicles in driveways are usually fair game due to curtilage laws in Massachusetts.

    6. Shopping malls and the like are known as "public access" ways. You can be can be arrested for driving drunk in these places, but could not be arrested for OUIL in an apartment complex driveway, even if there are no signs indicating private property.

    7. Thinks like EZpass are run by the government. The state knows who owns each car that goes through tolls with this system.

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    First, they came for the deadbeats...

    By on

    With respect, that's hardly a segment of the population to expend this "privacy rights eroding away" paranoia on.

    First, they came for the deadbeats, and I did not speak up -- for I wasn't a deadbeat.
    Then, they came for the undesirables, and I did not speak up -- for I wasn't an undesirable.
    Then, they came for the political dissidents, and I did not speak up -- for I wasn't a political dissident.
    And then, they came for me -- and there was nobody left to speak up for me.

    Momentary privacy

    By on

    By extension of your logic, if I tailed you from your house and wrote down every place that you went, you'd be okay with that.

    And more to the point, if everyone had access to that information. Including people who had a vendetta against you.

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    I guess I'm missing the point

    Seeing as the typical repossession process is legal (right?), then why can they not track these people down? What about Lojack? What if Lojack deploys some mobile scanners to better their efforts, particularly in a high profile recovery? I don't see the problem.

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    Lojack doesn't activate until

    Lojack doesn't activate until the car is reported stolen. Besides, less people might be inclined to purchase their product when buying a car if they thought it would also be used by repossessors to take it away more quickly.

    Didn't mean it like that

    I meant that why can't Lojack deploy plate scanners to track down the vehicle? As I understand it (mostly based on the missing man from East Boston recently), their tracking devices are a bit limited. Scanners may help, and be more efficient than simply putting eyes on the road.

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    Ah, I see what you're saying.

    Ah, I see what you're saying.

    The Lojack vehicle tracking system and the SafetyNet person tracking system share some similar principles, but aren't the same. Lojack vehicle tracking has been around forever, is widespread, and has a pretty impressive success rate. Lojack doesn't actually participate in tracking the vehicle though. They provide the tracking equipment to police departments and mount it on police cars, helicopters, etc.

    The SafetyNet system is handheld and not as many departments have the equipment. I believe it's a little more complicated than the 'old' system, and required the operator to be trained on the system. Since Lojack is headquartered out of Canton, they provided a few technicians during the search you mentioned to add some equipment to the field. That missing person was also a bit of a special case, since he quickly leaves the initial geographical area, making the search area beyond the capacity of the the SafetyNet transmitter/receivers. Usually this wouldn't be a problem, since you know where the person went missing from and in most cases isn't all that mobile.

    As for why LoJack wouldn't deploy LPRs to assist in stolen vehicle recovery, I'm guessing there are a few reasons. In many areas, they'd be duplicating the efforts of law enforcement, who are already using LPRs to search for stolen cars and plates. The investment in infrastructure probably wouldn't give them a good return on their money. Probably something like 99% of the plates scanned wouldn't have paid for Lojack. If passed, this bill would prohibit Lojack from creating a system like that anyways.

    De Facto people!

    To the arguments that public means there's no privacy. Yeah, de jure you don't have and you can't expect it. But there is a de facto element here. Before your license plate is plainly in the open you can go around and be tracked, but it's pretty hard to track. But computers can process that type of stuff very fast, allowed to be track easily. That is a change. And a change not in our interest because anything that undermine our options (in this case, ability to be unrecognized).

    You can argue that "why should I care?" But I response like this: All else equal - would it be preferable if a 3rd party have to take a lot of effort to recognize (or recognize proxies of you, to the license-plate-is-not-you-arguement) or very easily recognize you?

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    Exactly.

    By on

    Exactly.

    Technology changes the game. Yes, a company in 1940 *could* have sent people around writing down license plates and tracking them in a log book. But that doesn't mean that scanners and computer databases are the same thing, and that individual people shouldn't be concerned by this loss of privacy.

    If the state decides to put reasonable safeguards on the technology to prevent abuses by corporations, that's fine with me.

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    a vast change in scale

    Before, if someone wanted to catch you doing something that looked bad--e.g., cheating on your wife, going to a porno theater, emerging from a gay bar, visiting a friend who happens to live in an area known for drug dealing--you either had to be the victim of bad luck and have someone see you by sheer chance, or someone had to target you for surveillance based on prior suspicion of wrongdoing. The limiting factors were budget and manpower. Nowadays, they can just collect data on everybody and sift through it to see who's up to what. And there seem to be no rules or laws about who has access to this data.

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    A driver with

    a tinfoil hat may easy block the plate readers transmission. In the case of a parked vehicle a Larouche for president sticker will stop plate readers from functioning.

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    Only a D-MA

    Would propose laws against the interests of a money lender looking to get their loan repaid.

    What a scumbag. Hey, Jonathan Hecht, what are your debts? Why don't you share with the class? Methinks thou doth protest too much.

    Also, you can't spell "dumbass" without D-MA.

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