SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (SBG) — A Spotlight on America investigation found a surprising source taking your personal information and selling it: Departments of Motor Vehicles in states across the country. Depending on where you live, the information may be released to various government and law enforcement agencies involved in investigations or manufacturing recalls. But we discovered your data may be sold to businesses, private investigators and other entities you wouldn't expect.
We’ve been taught to closely guard our personal information. Things like your address, phone number and driver ID number are secrets we don’t want everyone to know. But a Spotlight on America investigation discovered the information you hand over to get a license or register your car is actually going to lots of people, depending on where you live.
"This really is a widespread process around the country," said Adam Schwartz, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It’s a serious intrusion on the privacy of the public and it needs to stop."
Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at EFF, says a federal law passed in 1994 was designed to stop this type of sale from happening without your consent. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act, also known as DPPA, was passed after the death of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed by an obsessed fan who used motor vehicle records to figure out where she lived. But Schwartz explained, the law hasn't solved the problem, "Unfortunately, DPPA is riddled with exceptions. The federal DPPA says the government cannot give out the information absent the consent of the driver, but there are all these exceptions. What needs to happen is these exceptions need to be plugged."
The exceptions he's talking about happen at the state level, where different privacy laws govern who can legally get access to your information, either in bulk or individually. Spotlight on America contacted every DMV in each of the 50 states and Washington, DC to find out the rules that govern how they handle your information. We asked each agency which information is for sale, or available for release, who can buy it and whether they make a profit.
From the 20 states that responded, our team found it’s fairly standard for your information to be made available to law enforcement, insurance companies and vehicle manufacturers that are trying to track you down to inform you about vehicle recalls.
But-our investigation also discovered some surprising organizations allowed to buy your data in various states, including private investigators, security companies, commercial data brokers, collection agencies, private billing companies, alumni groups, targeted advertising firms, bulk marketers and more. The specifics about what can be shared were found in state codes and responses supplied by the agencies who answered our questions.
Schwartz said the practice, even when well-intentioned for something like a vehicle recall notice, is still problematic at its core. "The information should not be shared or used for a different reason without getting the informed consent of the individual," he said.
But in most states, we learned opting out isn’t an option. And even when an opt-out is an option, like in Tennessee, it’s not a blanket protection. Our Nashville affiliate FOX17 found that out when they pressed the agency in charge of driver information. The state gives drivers a couple of options for consenting to release their information when applying for a driver's license, but reporter Scott Couch discovered the state still sells their information to five companies, even if they've indicated they want to opt-out.
Couch asked agency spokesman Wes Moster, "Do you think most people would be surprised after they filled out the form saying please don't share my information that the state still sells it to five companies?" Moster responded, "I think they would be surprised. There's not an opt-out option under the federal or state law. So again, the department is authorized to provide that information to companies that are authorized to receive that information."
What may also be surprising to drivers is the huge amount of money states rake in by releasing your information. Spotlight on America discovered in the agency responses that some states bring in millions of dollars annually selling information to businesses and agencies that legally qualify. Some told us the money is solely to cover the cost of fulfilling requests for information, but others indicated the money was channeled into things like data maintenance and highway funds. Driver Samantha Albright wasn't thrilled to hear that, saying, "If they're selling my information, I need a portion of it. That's my information, so I'll wait for a check in the mail."
We requested interviews with the DMVs in Maryland, Virginia and DC, where Spotlight on America is based, to request on-camera interviews. The agencies declined. So did the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which told us there are no current best practices when it comes to this issue and that the decision to share or withhold data is at the discretion of each individual state.
Privacy experts like Adam Schwartz say it’s time for lawmakers to step in. "People are more worried than ever about how government and business is abusing their personal information and are calling out for laws. This is very much the tip of the iceberg."