7 On Your Side: Repo man collects, sells your information

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Many Bay Area law enforcement vehicles have cameras that record license plates. Those records go into a big database to help catch criminals. But did you know repo trucks also have them and they are helping out the police?

7 On Your Side found out private companies use these cameras to record not only your license plate, but also where you are, at what time, then they share, store and sell this information with virtually no oversight.

Someone is following you. They are tracking your car, taking photos, recording your precise location, and then selling that information. Who is behind this vast and virtually unknown network of surveillance? The repo man.

A repo man told us, "People are always concerned what the cameras are for. No one likes the repo man."

Nowadays, the repo man uses camera technology to get the job done. Fleets of repo trucks with cameras are rigged up with the same license plate technology police use. Their high-speed cameras capture thousands of plates an hour.

"We get about 20,000 plates scanned in a day," the repo man said.

Those cameras create a digital snapshot of our lives -- where we go, who we're with and when.

"On the public safety side, those databases are controlled. On the private sector side, it's a business. It's not really clear how long they can keep that information, how they can share that information, how they can sell that information," ABC7 intelligence expert Hal Kemper said.

Two of the biggest names in the business, DRN and MVTRA, were both started by former repo men. DRN operates Vigilant Solutions in Livermore and sells their cameras to many Bay Area law enforcement agencies.

"DRN, which focuses on private enterprise, and their primary customers are lending institutions, insurance carriers," DRN founder Todd Hodnett said.

That's the repo business. Hodnett says they keep their license plate data indefinitely.

"On average, we've seen a vehicle roughly 10 times in seven years," Hodnett said.

Mike Katz Lacabe of San Leandro requested his license plate records from his local police agency. He said, "It included 112 images of my two vehicles, collected over the period of two years."

He was especially disturbed by the photos of him getting out of his car with his daughter.

"There's a GPS latitude and longitude stamped to it. So that we know where and when that picture was taken," CEO MVTRAC Scott Jackson said. He says, "Everyone has the right to take a photograph in public."

But critics are worried that information could fall into the wrong hands.

"Right now, we're really just having to trust the companies to tell us how they share the information," Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.

Lynch is a privacy expert for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is located in San Francisco. She's concerned how private investigators might use this information.

Lynch told 7 On Your Side, "That would mean that, for example, divorce attorneys could have access to it, people who are trying to stalk people from prior relationships could have access to it."

Law enforcement says they are talking to shopping malls and hospitals to install license plate readers. These are places they would like help catching criminals.
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