DMV Offices in the United States Sell Citizen Data to Private Investigators

By Bill Toulas / September 7, 2019

Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) are reportedly selling your sensitive personal data to private investigators. The revelation comes from Motherboard, who claims to have obtained proof in the form of documents. As they report, the private investigators who buy data from DMVs are not keeping it a secret, but instead promote it as part of their services. After Motherboard asked various DMVs for comment, some of them answered by saying that it happens through a special MOU (memorandum of understanding) that is signed as an agreement between the investigators and the offices. Then, the information is provided via remote electronic means (email). The data that is sold includes driver license details, vehicle registration numbers, and other types of personal information.

The DMVs have made it clear that they do not sell photographs of citizens or social security numbers. However, there were also some cases where the agreement allowed the private investigator to look up specific individuals by accessing the database directly and in bulk. According to the documents, the records that are sold cost as little as $0.01 per item. With the data sold in bulk and to a large number of entities, some DMVs have made quite a lot of money from this practice. The one in Rhode Island, for example, has made $384000 since 2015.



A characteristic case is the Virginia DMV, which has sold data to 109 private investigator firms. Other DMVs that are open to sharing citizen data with anyone who pays for it are the New Jersey Vehicle Commission, the Delaware DMV, and the one in Wisconsin. Motherboard says their documents don’t contain only investigators, but other entities such as media companies, research firms, and more. This raises huge issues with the privacy protection of citizens, especially the vulnerable categories like those who have suffered abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, trafficking, etc. We won’t even tap into the problems that concern phishing and social engineering attacks here, which this data would make a lot easier and effective.

Back in July, we covered a story about DMV offices in 21 states letting the FBI and ICE use their data troves to build comprehensive facial recognition databases. As much as this was worrying for the U.S. citizens, this latest news about selling data to private entities is a lot worse. For this reason, and because abusing this data is a natural side-effect of the process, Senator Ron Wyden, who specializes in privacy and surveillance is planning to launch an investigation on the matter. After all, U.S. citizens are obliged to give out their sensitive information to DMVs, which is a state-level government agency, and should be trustworthy.

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