September 5, 2016

I’d just finished parking my car in the covered garage at Reagan National Airport just across the river from Washington, D.C. when I noticed a dark green minivan slowly creeping through the row behind me. The vehicle caught my attention because its driver didn’t appear to be looking for an open spot. What’s more, the van had what looked like two cameras perched atop its roof — one of each side, both pointed down and slightly off to the side.

I had a few hours before my flight boarded, so I delayed my walk to the terminal and cut through several rows of cars to snag a video of the guy moving haltingly through another line of cars. I approached the driver and asked what he was doing. He smiled and tilted the lid on his bolted-down laptop so that I could see the pictures he was taking with the mounted cameras: He was photographing every license plate in the garage (for the record, his plate was a Virginia tag number 36-646L).

A van at Reagan National Airport equipped with automated license plate readers fixed to the roof.

A van at Reagan National Airport equipped with automated license plate readers fixed to the roof.

The man said he was hired by the airport to keep track of the precise location of every car in the lot, explaining that the data is most often used by the airport when passengers returning from a trip forget where they parked their vehicles. I checked with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which manages the garage, and they confirmed the license plate imaging service was handled by a third-party firm called HUB Parking.

I’m accustomed to having my license plate photographed when entering a parking area (Dulles International Airport in Virginia does this), but until that encounter at Reagan National I never considered that this was done manually.

“Reagan National uses this service to assist customers in finding their lost vehicles,” said MWAA spokesperson Kimberly Gibbs. “If the customer remembers their license plate it can be entered into the system to determine what garages and on what aisle their vehicle is parked.”

What does HUB Parking do with the information its clients collect? Ilaria Riva, marketing manager for HUB Parking, says the company does not sell or share the data it collects, and that it is up to the client to decide how that information is stored or shared.

“It is true the solution that HUB provides to our clients may collect data, but HUB does not own the data nor do we have any control over what the customer does with it,” Riva said.

Gibbs said MWAA does not share parking information with outside organizations. But make no mistake: the technology used at Reagan National Airport, known as automated license plate reader or ALPR systems, is already widely deployed by municipalities, police forces and private companies — particularly those in the business of repossessing vehicles from deadbeat owners who don’t pay their bills.

It’s true that people have zero expectation of privacy in public places — and roads and parking garages certainly are public places for the most part. But according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the data collected by ALPR systems can be very revealing, and in many cities ALPR technology is rapidly outpacing the law.

“By matching your car to a particular time, date and location, and then building a database of that information over time, law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are,” the EFF warns.

A 2014 ABC News investigation in Los Angeles found the technology broadly in use by everyone from the local police to repo men. The story notes that there are little or no restrictions on what private companies that collect time- and location-stamped license plate data can do with the information. As a result, they are selling it to insurers, banks, law enforcement and federal agencies.

In Texas, the EFF highlights how state and local law enforcement agencies have free access to ALPR equipment and license plate data maintained by a private company called Vigilant Solutions. In exchange, police cruisers are retrofitted with credit-card machines so that law enforcement officers can take payments for delinquent fines and other charges on the spot — with a 25 percent processing fee tacked on that goes straight to Vigilant. In essence, the driver is paying Vigilant to provide the local cops with the technology used to identify and detain the driver.

“The ‘warrant redemption’ program works like this,” the EFF wrote. “The agency is given no-cost license plate readers as well as free access to LEARN-NVLS, the ALPR data system Vigilant says contains more than 2.8-billion plate scans and is growing by more than 70-million scans a month. This also includes a wide variety of analytical and predictive software tools. Also, the agency is merely licensing the technology; Vigilant can take it back at any time.”

That’s right: Even if the contract between the state and Vigilant ends, the latter gets to keep all of the license plate data collected by the agency, and potentially sell or license the information to other governments or use it for other purposes.

I wanted to write this story not because it’s particularly newsy, but because I was curious about a single event and ended up learning a great deal that I didn’t already know about how pervasive this technology has become.

Yes, we need more transparency about what companies and governments are doing with information collected in public. But here’s the naked truth: None of us should harbor any illusions about maintaining the privacy of our location at any given moment — particularly in public spaces.

As it happens, location privacy is a considerably expensive and difficult goal for most Americans to attain and maintain. Our mobile phones are constantly pinging cell towers, making it simple for mobile providers and law enforcement agencies to get a fix on your location within a few dozen meters.

Obscuring the address of your residence is even harder. If you’ve ever had a mortgage on your home or secured utilities for your residence using your own name, chances are excellent that your name and address are in thousands of databases, and can be found with a free or inexpensive public records search online.

Increasingly, location privacy is the exclusive purview of two groups of Americans: Those who are indigent and/or homeless and those who are wealthy. Only the well-off can afford the substantial costs and many petty inconveniences associated with separating one’s name from their address, vehicle, phone records and other modern niceties that make one easy to track and find.

89 thoughts on “Location Privacy: The Purview of the Rich and Indigent

  1. Andy Travis

    Airports also use this information when a customer claims to have “lost their ticket” and only parked in the lot for a small amount of time. In fact, many airports do this to find lost cars (as noted) but catch the unethical parking cheats.

    1. Jay

      THIS !! – Tampa International Airport does the exact same thing and has been doing it 8+ years, they drive around and record all the tags. I once lost a ticket, and I disputed the date that the vehicle went into the garage (legitimately thought they had made a mistake), and they were able to produce a log that showed exactly what floor and spot my car as in and it was recorded there everyday.

    1. patti

      You would not *believe* how much incorrect information is in my credit report. We live in the era of “bad data in databases.” I wonder how long it will take for everyone (feds, courts, legalities, communities, etc.) to realize this?

      1. SeymourB

        If you think credit reports are bad, you should look into debt collection. Their information as to whether a debt is valid or not consists of a line in an Excel spreadsheet. If it’s in their spreadsheet it must be valid.

  2. Mark D. Withers

    Both Bethlehem PA and Allentown, PA parking authorities use camera technology mounted on their vehicles to time vehicles in spaces with time limits, find vehicles with expired registration parked on the street and issue tickets, and scofflaws who have unpaid parking tickets so the vehicle can be booted or impounded. Philadelphia PA has long done this with the parking authority, if you remember the cable tv show “Parking Wars”. I have also seen cameras on Police Cars in Philadelphia, PA , Allentown, PA, and PA State Police out of Troop M Bethlehem, PA.
    And in all cases these are cameras designed only to read license plates. They do not record standard video. Remember most EZ Pass entry and exit points on toll bridges and toll roadways also have license plate cameras. Tell your car to SMILE!

  3. Scott Clark

    The insurance and vehicle repossession industries both use and provide this data on a mass scale. This information is available under the “vehicle sightings” on TLO. CLEAR may also provide this information to the private investigation industry.

  4. John B

    Brian, this topic was something totally new and i learned alot. Much appreciated!

  5. David Salter

    Sounds perfectly normal to me but at first glance the method seems a bit crazy, why not just have number plate scanners at the entrance and tie the plate to the ticket? I guess this approach is best for the US as tags are normally on the rear only.

    Having tag scanners at the entrance to airport parking garages is normal for the UK as vehicles have tags front and rear. A benefit to tying the ticket to the tag makes exiting airport car parks really efficient, even if you have lost your ticket as there is no dispute about when you entered.

    1. Bob

      I believe the number of states with rear license plates only is in the minority in the U.S.
      In Texas, on automated toll roads, they take a photo of your rear license plate if you don’t have an electronic toll tag.

      1. BrianKrebs Post author

        This is true. I believe Arizona still has plates only in the back, which confounds this technology when people back into spots.

        1. Mark

          Indiana is also rear plate only.
          Until Indiana went to Daylight time a few years ago, It and Arizona were about the last two holdouts on that, too.

    2. Nikon1

      PA is a rear plate only state which is why, when I lived there, I always backed into a parking spot.

      Who’s paranoid????

    3. Nikon1

      PA is a rear plate only commonwealth which is why, when I lived there, I always backed in.

      Who you calling paranoid?

  6. David U

    Another frightening insight into the downside of technological advances, Thanks for sharing.

    PS – in your notification email the paragraph “I had a few hours before my flight boarded” was repeated. Not a huge issue but given your extremely high standards, I thought you’ want to know!

  7. Senan Largey

    A very interesting article Brian and a great very relevant and enjoyable link to Rockford Files Robert. Maybe there should be a Krebbs files detective TV series in the offing?

    Brian, I hope you have many, many more spare hours in airports and other public places in the hope our education continues!

  8. Mike

    Most of the people reading this (including the one that wrote it) carries around a smart phone.

  9. John Butcher

    There’s a bit more going on here:

    That L at the end of the license plate number indicates a Virginia local government owns the van. Hard to know how a private contractor, ostensibly working for the MWAA, got that tag.

    As well, there’s an interesting question whether the data are available under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

    1. Bart

      Could it be that National Airport requires that one of their vehicles is used; as part of the contract or for insurance purposes?

      Actually, that plate could be “run” if someone has a friend in the right place.

  10. James

    We call it ANPR in the UK (numberplate).

    It’s a classic example of mission creep: someone built a system and used it, and when people protested the privacy implications, the authorities responded by saying that it was now an important crime-solving tool, and as such opposition was tantamount to supporting criminal behaviour.

    What makes it worse in our context is that, unlike (say) the Germans, we have no constitutional mechanism of saying that the use of ANPR is an invasion of privacy and thus can be regulated. It appears the US has the same problem.

  11. Scotty

    Great article. Maybe one day you could give more details in regards to ‘the substantial costs and many petty inconveniences associated with separating one’s name from their address, vehicle, phone records…’. I would love to know more about how this is done.

  12. DM

    This is just another layer. You should really do a story on voting machines in this country. It is the crux of many of your issues and the destruction of the country.

    We have Hillary and Trump because of election fraud. Should have been Bernie and Trump.

    1. Mahhn

      No, it should be all the candidates and not just the richest. Media marginalizes the other parties every chance they get. This morning on the way into work NPR couldn’t talk more about hilldog and trmp if they had to, but would not even mention other candidates. That is manipulation. I am so disappointed. It was also very clear they are supporting hilldog. No mention of Johnson or Stein. That’s how they hand it to their “donor”. (aka taking a bribe)

  13. Chris Dubya

    I’m glad you brought this to my attention. The University I attend ,along with the local Police department, both use ALPR systems. Time to do some digging myself. Universities are notorious for selling information to third parties.

  14. Citizen 10538

    The MTA (NY) uses this technology on it’s bridge ans tunnel crossings. More than once they have caught wanted criminals and stolen cars using this technology.

  15. Scott

    Are you obligated to display your plate while on private property? Imagine having a system that will cover the plate(s), and automatically uncover them when driving on public roads. (Not sure this is a wise idea, but don’t see it as illegal.)

    1. Bob

      Probably not. In most states you are only required to get a license plate for a vehicle that will be driven on the public roads.

      1. Sasparilla

        Of course, when you’re the only one in the lot who doesn’t have plates that can be read – you become the focus of attention and quite probably manually identified.

        Once surveillance becomes pervasive enough, those that take steps to preserve their privacy will stand out like sore thumbs and get identified in spite of their actions.

        Seems like Germany is about the only developed democracy that actually has laws truly protecting privacy (against pervasive surveillance) and their legislators are trying to invalidate those (end of article below).

  16. vb

    It’s not all bad…I had my stolen car located in a matter of hours by the local cops using ALPR. Modern thieves park a car stolen car for a day or two in case the car has a tracking device. That gives the police time to locate stolen cars in addition to the other uses of ALPR.

  17. Kevin

    I frequently fly out of Baltimore Washington Airport and made the mistake of backing into a parking spot once. I live in PA and we do not have front licenses plates on our vehicles, only rear plates. Upon returning from my trip, I was greeted by a warning notice attached to my vehicle due to my plate not facing the isle. The notice included a warning that the vehicle could be towed. I Guess they want that plate # pretty bad…

  18. Mary

    I was out in my front flower beds on a weekday vacation day when I noticed a white van driving slowly down our street. It was marked as a surveillance vehicle from our city (about 35,000 people in our suburb) and while it was marked as a city vehicle, it did not have our usual city logo on it. I sat and watched it drive slowly, I mean really creeping along. Later that afternoon, curiosity got the best of me and I called city hall. Of course I was treated like a crazy woman but they finally said it was just a DPW vehicle that goes out to locate utilities. Really? Our utility companies do that through our Diggers Hotline. Call me skeptical but what would they be doing?

    1. Greg

      A lot of utility meters are wireless now, so it could have been reading meters…

      1. Mary

        It was odd that it wasn’t marked like the other city vehicles. I must be watching too many movies. Getting paranoid apparently. LOL

  19. twinmustangranchdressing

    Do airports have safeguards in place to thwart anyone who knows your license plate number and pretends to be you in order to locate your car at the airport for nefarious purposes?

  20. Jim

    Redflex has the same dirty deal with municipalities and law enforcement as Vigilant. They set up all of the red light cameras at their expense, reimburse jurisdictions for whatever show-polices exist for an actual police officer to review pictures of alleged violations, and then drivers send their fines directly to Redflex who sends a cut to the cities. In between they have been caught manipulating cycle times on yellow lights, and wining and dining politicians in an effort to drum up business. It is a dangerous precedent for law enforcement to second its sacred power to the for-profit sector.

  21. Jay

    If the technology were being used truly for lost cars or tickets and the data and privacy protected, I would say fine. I’m guessing that it’s only a matter of time before tech savvy divorce lawyers try to purchase or tap into the records to prove that a cheating wife or husband was either here or there and now has photographic proof. Wait for it…its coming.

  22. IA Eng

    If it was leaked and shows any sort of historical data, crooks who do breaking and entering, it is a treasure trove of information. It can reveal travel patterns, when a person is not at home for a day or more.

    No to mention stalkers and other classic wierdo’s that might find it convenient to locate that fav person, ex or otherwise. Not to mention the government would like to know where/when certain people travel as well.

    It would be cheaper and less expensive to dispense a small ticket in the general location of the car. Then use the car alarm fob to pinpoint the vehicle.

    How hard is it snap a photo of the general area you parked with your phone, or a voice reminder or short email, or even a scribbled note tucked away? I know, I know, some of this takes a little forward thinking, but generally the practice takes seconds to do.

    As for home privacy issues, the billing /mailing addresses can be forwarded to a post office box. If some of the database info is not sold, maybe there is a chance that your info will be saved.

    1. BrianKrebs Post author

      “How hard is it snap a photo of the general area you parked with your phone, or a voice reminder or short email, or even a scribbled note tucked away?”

      I do exactly this, which is why half the pictures on my phone are boring images of concrete garage posts with numbers on them.

  23. Kalifornian

    At least the citizens of Kalifornia are protected, somewhat, with Senate Bill 34, which passed last year.

    SB 34 regulates the privacy and usage of data collected by an ALPR system, including prohibiting public agencies from selling or sharing the information except to another public agency and limiting use of the information to authorized purposes. The law also adds information collected through an ALPR system to the definition of Personally Identifiable Information (when a license plate is associated with a GPS tag) to the data breach notification law.

    More states need to pass similar laws perhaps to provide protections to its citizens.

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