I-Team: Private information of Tri-State drivers being tracked, sold without consent

'You are being tracked'

CINCINNATI – Someone is following you.

They are tracking your car, taking photos, recording your precise location and then selling that information without your knowledge or consent.

"(I was) just nonchalantly walking into Northgate Mall one day, and now my picture is taken – and I didn't even know it was taken," said Japera Stuckey, a mother of two.

Stuckey said she is always concerned about the safety of her two children, but had no idea strangers were photographing her car – and more than once.

These strangers are part of a fleet of private cars tracking the movements of residents all over the Tri-State.

They are repo men.

Equipped with the same license plate reading technology police use, these repo men scan tags all over the region on a daily basis. That information is then entered into a private database to determine if its owner is behind on their car payments.

When Tri-State residents drive home from work, park in grocery store lots or even enter their own driveway, pictures of their cars are added to this virtually unknown private database that is compiling information on all of us.

"Every time a picture is captured, it puts GPS coordinates to where you are right now," said Robert Peters, a licensed private investigator who owns Metro Special Patrol. “Unfortunately, (Stuckey) wasn't aware where she was being tracked, and how many places she was being seen."

Peters says Stuckey was recently scanned and photographed by an LPR (license plate recognition) camera five times – once while she was near her children’s school.

"That's really scary,” Stuckey said. “Now they know where I’m going to take my kids to school."

An automated LPR camera scans every plate it sees while repo men drive through parking lots and city streets looking for vehicles to repossess.

But the technology wasn’t always used for repossessing vehicles. It started as a tool just for police.

LPR scanners are currently mounted on about 135 police cruisers in the Tri-State area.

About 85 Tri-State police departments use LPR cameras. The cameras don't just run a tag number. They also feed photos, times and GPS locations of every plate captured into a massive database. Like a high-speed grocery scanner, a single LPR-equipped car can scan thousands of vehicles in a single day.

"It snaps a picture,” Peters said. “That picture marks time and date, along with a geographical location of latitude (and) longitude. That can then result in an actual place, time, date stamp of where the vehicle was seen."

This gadget is currently mounted on about 135 police cruisers in the Tri-State area, silently recording license plates into a database that has both caught and cleared suspects.

Covington officer Jen Rudolph says she scans about 1,500 to 2,000 license plates every day.

In October of 2013, she said a vehicle’s license plate scan led to a big break in a case.

"(The database) said 'used in a robbery and assault' and gave the description of the suspect in that incident," Rudolph said.

The suspect was 20-year-old Edward Dahn, who police said was responsible for a brutal attack last year at a Florence gas station.

The victim in that case, who is paralyzed for life, also had his car stolen – the same car that passed Rudolph’s LPR cruiser on Madison Avenue in Covington.

Covington officer Jen Rudolph says she scans about 1,500 to 2,000 license plates every day.

Rudolph said she would have never known the stolen vehicle was there without her LPR camera.

“It would just have been another vehicle that had passed me,” she said. "Once (I) realized that it was a stolen vehicle, that's when I decided it was going to be a felony stop, which is where we call him out from the vehicle at gunpoint."

Soon after police found success with LPR scanners, the private industry began to put the technology to work – most prominently in recovering vehicles from deadbeat borrowers.

Private users of LPR cameras soon discovered the data being obtained was also worth a lot of money.

When repo men use the LPR system, it automatically saves all cars scanned, not just those of delinquent borrowers.

The company that runs the database, TLO, says it has collected more than 1 billion LPR scans in its system – and adds 50 million new captures every month.

The Tri-State LPR database has more than 25 million records, and likely includes several photos of your car at different times and places.

"If it gets in the wrong hands, someone can use it for a bad purpose," Peters said.

TLO offers a “cost-effective” pricing package to access the LPR database on its website. The company even offers a 15-day free trial.

But TLO officials say they don’t offer database access to just anyone – only to licensed private investigators and others with a “permissible use” including investigative reporters, corporate risk fraud and security officials, attorneys, government officials and more.

But Peters says there are many low cost investigators you can hire online who can get you this private information, no questions asked.

"There are so many (private investigators) nationwide who would be more than happy to provide (LPR database) information right over the Internet – never see anybody face to face,” Peters said. “They don't really care who you are."

A fleet of private cars are tracking the movements of residents all over the Tri-State.

In Stuckey’s case, the LPR database not only showed her car, it pinpointed the parking space she was in when the photo was snapped.

"So they would easily be able to locate where I am in the city,” Stuckey said. “That's scary."

Peters said there’s no way to “opt out” of being scanned – and the only way to keep your information out of the database is to not drive a car.

TLO was recently purchased by the credit bureau TransUnion. Company officials say users must show they have permission under federal privacy laws in order to access the database.

Despite these barriers, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are not comfortable with the existence of this database.

In 2013, the ACLU released a report on LPR systems called "You are being tracked," sharply criticizing the technology.

“Automatic license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse,” the organization wrote. “(This is) a significant invasion of privacy.”

To read the full report, click here.

TLO TransUnion released the following official response to the I-Team Monday:

The license plate recognition program (LPR) is just one of many data points used by law enforcement and other credentialed customers as part of the TLOxp investigative system. This feature of TLOxp went live in 2013. TransUnion requires a permissible purpose under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) for access to this data, requiring end-users to attest, upon each login, to a DPPA permissible purpose. If no permissible purpose is selected, access is denied. Like most organizations that use this type of data, TransUnion does not collect LPR data. We obtain it from a third-party vendor.  It is important to note that no LPR data that TransUnion uses is obtained from government sources, e.g. police/traffic cameras, toll booth expressway cameras, etc.   We take the permissible purpose clause very seriously. If the private investigator using the LPR service did not have a permissible purpose when he was “demonstrating” this service to you and the “person on the street,” we will need to investigate and take appropriate action. Thank you. 

Clifton M. O’Neal, VP of Corporate Communications

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