BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Asset recovery businesses have always been trying to do more with less. Now, some of them are taking advantage of cameras and digital imaging. But privacy experts say it's a slippery slope.
For repossession agencies, it is clearly breakthrough technology. It is the exact same technology police use - license plate recognition technology through high-speed digital cameras mounted on the hood and trunk.
John Henderson, owner of Niagara Frontier Recovery, has been using the system for a few years.
"My cameras read the license plate on that car. It comes into our system, and it's saved into the system," explained Henderson.
Photos of the plates pop up on a laptop computer inside the repo truck. The plate numbers are then checked against a national database of vehicles to be repossessed, compiled from lein holders. Repo agents are driving through parking lots, shopping malls and neighborhoods in search of wanted vehicles. But the plate readers are also capturing and storing information from all vehicles within range of the cameras, even if they're not on the want list.
Henderson said, "They automatically download the location of the vehicle, such as address, the time that the vehicle was spotted."
That means the repo agency will know where to find the vehicle if it becomes a delinquent account in the future.
John Curr, III said, "We're in an area where the technology has outpaced the law."
Curr is the Western Regional Office Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"What would prevent an operator of this nature, an unscrupulous one perhaps, from making this information available in matrimonial proceedings, child custody questions, and following people with that type of technology?" questioned Curr.
An ACLU lawyer stated, "Regular collection of this data is the real danger. That is the surveillance creep that's overtaking our society."
Henderson added, "It can be done. It shouldn't be done. However, people are people. I hear it happens from time to time. I think that's unfortunate."
News 4 cameras recorded an unmarked car with plate readers driving around a store parking lot in North Buffalo several weeks ago, and then again at parking lots in Amherst a few weeks later. It might look like an undercover police car, but it's actually registered to a local repossession agency. The company declined our request for an interview.
Curr said, "We need privacy legislation that covers this type of activity. The largest, unregulated, most profitable industry in America is data-mining. This is another form of it."
While the camera systems have upended the way repo agencies do their job, no longer searching for a needle in the haystack, Henderson says any real, legitimate recovery agency would be crazy to risk its reputation and license by stepping over the line.
"I've seen companies that have gotten caught up in stuff like that, and they're no longer around. You only got to get caught once fooling around and you're finished," said Henderson.
Henderson says the camera technology is considered by the large lein holders a necessary piece of equipment. He says it legitimizes a company's investment as a professional in the field of asset recovery.
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