For private investigators, part of the job is staying up-to-date with the latest technology that enables efficient investigations. License plate recognition (LPR) technology is definitely one to keep on the radar as it enables users to keep tabs on specific vehicles without planting a tracker. In fact, this technology is so effective that it stirs conversations about privacy invasion and the need for increased oversight. Learn more about this technology, the controversy surrounding it, and why it is relevant for professional private investigators.
What is LPR and How does it work?
LPR systems start with cameras mounted on cars and street poles that automatically capture digital pictures of license plates. Similar to face recognition systems, this software uses optical character recognition to recognize a license plate, capture the image, and store the information. These photographs tag the vehicle’s location along with the date and time of the photo. This data is then transmitted to massive databases running on remote computer servers. Because of the number of cameras capturing this data, which are often “affiliates” who agree to install cameras on their vehicle or building, billions of license plates have been captured and stored permanently.
LPR technology originated in Britain while fighting IRA terrorists. In the early 2000s, police agencies brought this technology to the United States in order to address auto theft. The United States Department of Homeland Security also expressed interest in how LPR could be used to fight terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. For years, insurance companies and repossession firms use plate readers in order to track down vehicles after missed payments or those suspected of insurance fraud.
Digital Recognition Network (DRN)
The company with the biggest database of license plate scans is DRN or Digital Recognition Network. To date, the company has taken roughly nine billion license plate photos and that number is constantly growing as it captures and permanently stores around 80 million geotagged images each month. It achieves this by using over 600 “affiliates” or cars with DRN cameras installed that they pay to drive around and capture license plates. Their website says they “help customers reach their customers, locate their assets, prioritize collections activity, manage risk, uncover fraud and identify rate evasion.” While DRN itself focuses on serving auto lending and insurance customers, it shares the data it collects with Vigilant Solutions, which gears towards law enforcement. DRN also provides access to its data to Delvepoint which markets specifically to private investigators.
DRN users can create a PDF of their search results including a map of the searched vehicles and the addresses of where the vehicle was documented. It costs around $20 to look up a license plate and $70 for a “live alert” which provides the user with email updates when the system spots the vehicle in a new location.
If being able to track a subject without using a GPS tracker seems too good to be true, you’re not alone. While law enforcement uses license plate recognition to prevent crime and catch bad guys, it can also potentially fall into the wrong hands and many consider it a privacy invasion.
Unlike similar databases used by law enforcement, license plate databases have no rules in place to protect misuse of the information or limit long-term storage. Since private entities own the data, there is very little oversight and only as much transparency as the company allows. Plus, you don’t need a warrant or special permission to view this data. Law enforcement typically goes through training and is held to certain standards while using similar tools, but LPR can easily be accessed by people who simply claim to have the right intentions.
There is also a concern for privacy. As DRN itself states, 90% of people are consistently within 1,000 feet of their vehicles so it’s safe to say where their car is reliably indicates a person’s location. LPR systems can record a person’s movements that, though lawfully captured, could be considered private such as attendance to addiction counseling, doctors’ offices, clinics, or even political protests. The images captured also have the potential to inadvertently document the drivers themselves and their passengers, such as a spouse or children. While useful information for security reasons, this information could be dangerous in the hands of a stalker or other nefarious individual or group.
DRN and similar companies have been quick to address these concerns. TLOxp, a Florida-based data solutions provider, claims that their clients must be part of specific industries, follow rules on the permissible use of TLOxp’s databases, and describe specifically how they want to use the data. DRN claims something similar, saying they have “strict controls” over their data and that they “abide by all regulatory guidelines to ensure the security of our data. This includes adherence to the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).”
Plus, they claim that all of the data they gather is completely legal. DRN says, “Because the camera is photographing license plates in public locations visible for all to see, there is no expectation of privacy in the data we collect.” So since they are in a public space, the First Amendment protects taking pictures of the license plates. License plate database companies also point out that the information they gather is not invasive. They describe the pictures they take as information about a vehicle, not an individual. Additionally, it is possible to obtain such information through other means such as social media.
License Plate Recognition and PIs
For a professional private investigator, a license plate number can serve as a vital piece of information. License plate databases can provide this information reliably and quickly. Using this technology, PIs can uncover a subject’s likely location, predict their travel patterns, and identify potential associates and relationships. They can also determine patterns of behavior and put together a detailed picture of a subject’s life and habits. While license plate recognition does not completely replace actual footwork, it can save time an investigator might have spent on initial surveillance or interviewing a subject’s family and friends.
There are a variety of different companies you can use to access license plate databases, some specifically made with private investigators in mind. One of the most popular is Delvepoint which has access to DRN’s collection of over nine million pictures. Other skip tracing software includes idiCORE, Thomson Reuters’ Clear, and TLOxp.
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