You might want to spiff up your license plate

smiley licenseAs you’re running errands in your car, chances are increasingly good that your license plates are being scanned. If you’re scanned enough times, it’s possible to predict where you’re going to be at a given date and time.

One industry making profitable use of such data is car repossession. You can read all about how it’s done in this month’s issue of Popular Science.

The company featured in the article, Relentless, has decked out its tow trucks with tens of thousands of dollars worth of cameras and image processors. They can grab license plate images while speeding down a highway and mark them with time and GPS data. Relentless even hires scouts who drive around all day grabbing images of license plates – any and all license plates that come in their path. One such scout drives a Honda Fit outfitted with a $23,000 camera suite. The equipment includes a 20-millimeter lens to spot cars in motion and a 50-millimeter lens to capture vehicles parked 60 feet away. By searching for specific license plate numbers – those of cars whose owners are behind in payments – Relentless has a good idea of where a car will be and when it will be there. Then it’s easy to tow the car away and bag a fee of $300 to $800 for the repossession.

On the one hand, this is good, old-fashioned innovation and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, there are still many places people frequent where they’d like to maintain their privacy.

You’re probably making your car payments on time. Do you, however, really want to worry about being spotted in a place that might cause offense to someone in power – a political rally, for example, or a concert featuring someone thought to be subversive?

Our culture of surveillance seems to be ramping up exponentially, and I don’t see any way to put the genie back in the bottle. The repo companies are already excited about the possibility of using drones to look for license plates of vehicles behind tall fences on private property. Who knows what other plans both government agencies and private entities might have in the works?

If you’re not attuned to privacy issues already, now’s the time. You might want to rethink your cavalier attitude about information you put on social media sites. At the very least, you might want to spiff up your license plate with a little soap and water. If you’re going to be spied upon, you might at least look presentable.

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