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Big Data

Analysis | Text-Dependent 

Source Lexile®: 1350L-1410L




Prompt: Read the following two articles about whether governments and banks should have the right to collect and sell private citizens’ data. The first source is RT, a media platform funded by the Russian state government; the second source is In These Times, a progressive activism journal based in Chicago.

These are two sources that present alternative viewpoints of the same topic. Neither presents factually inaccurate information, but both are biased in ways that may influence the content or presentation of information. As always, it is important to consider the sources from a critical perspective as you respond to the demands of the prompt.

Both articles discuss the benefits and drawbacks of collecting data, but the manner in which they present this information is very different. Write an essay that analyzes how each author develops this argument and the overall strength of each. In your analysis, evaluate the use of ethos, pathos, and/or logos; style, word choice, and tone; and the author’s purpose. Remember to use textual evidence from both texts to support your analysis.



Source 1

"Private License Plate Scanners Amassing Vast Databases Open to Highest Bidders" 
From RT, March 6, 2014


Automated license plate readers used by car repo companies, for example, collect billions of personal records per year, which contribute to vast databases that can be used by law enforcement, insurance companies, banks, and the like, with few limits.


BetaBoston, working with the Boston Globe, detailed one Boston repo company's data collection abilities, reporting that New England Associates Inc. can collect $200 to $400 for each vehicle found by an automated reader attached to an unmarked car. The company says it can typically add 8,000 license plate scans to its database in Texas each day.


Digital Recognition Network, which works with New England Associates, says it collects plate scans of 40 percent of all US vehicles per year.


According to the company's own disclosures, Digital Recognition Network operates in conjunction with around 400 repossession outfits across the US, has increased tenfold its plate scans since September 2010, and adds 70 million scans a month.  The scanners use high-speed cameras and optical character recognition technology to scoop up 1,800 plates a minute, no matter the speed or driving conditions. The scanner also collects the date, time, and GPS location of each read, punctuating the privacy threats associated with plate scanning.


The legal scanners, which usually cost anywhere from $10,000 to $17,000, have few legal limits. For example, law enforcement— which have used the scanners for years— often have prohibitions on how long they can maintain the information gleaned, but private use is open season for those willing to subscribe for the information.


The top commercial use of the devices falls into the auto finance and auto repossession industries, which both work closely with major banks to track down those who default on loans. Digital Recognition claims its clients include Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., HSBC Holdings, and Citibank.


Banks strongly encourage its repo contractors to use plate scanners, based on their efficiency in tracking down loan defaulters.

"The banks want it," said Liran Cohen, owner of repo company Massachusetts Recovery Bureau. "All of them make a big deal out of it, since it gives them so much value."


Yet with few limits, there is little, if any, accountability regarding where and how repossession companies use the scanners. Many companies that spoke to the Globe said they send spotter cars to commercial lots based on the amount of vehicles open for scanning.


Digital Recognition's website lists "target environments" for repo agents, including "malls, movie theaters, sporting events, and numerous other locations." The company also suggests repo agents trawl workplaces and commercial lots during the day and apartment complexes and residential areas at night.


Some commercial property owners call this practice trespassing.


"We're unaware that this is happening, and we're reaching out to our security teams and law enforcement contacts to get a better handle on it,"" said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, which owns at least one mall in the Boston area.


"If we saw scanning like this being done, we would throw them out," said Issie Shait of New England Development, which owns the CambridgeSide Galleria and Bunker Hill Mall District.


Two repo companies said they target low-income housing areas, given the amount of yields collected in the past.


"This is just another example of stereotyping," said Cambridge Housing Authority deputy executive director Michael Johnston. "But our lots are open, and we don't have any gated communities in our system, so I don't know how to prevent it."


For its part, Digital Recognition said it cannot be blamed for how the scanners are used.


"We have nothing to do with the actual data collection process," said Chris Metaxas, chief executive of Digital Recognition. "We provide technology to repossession professionals."


Over 60 Massachusetts police departments have adopted scanners since 2008. In December, the Boston police suspended plate scanner use after a Globe investigation found questionable data management— including the inadvertent public release of over 69,000 license plate numbers.


The private databases are of use to law enforcement. Digital Recognition offers its data to over 3,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Massachusetts State Police.


This week, a Massachusetts state legislative committee held a hearing on a bill that seeks to ban license plate readers completely, with exceptions for law enforcement, toll collection, and parking regulation.


"We have technology rapidly moving ahead in terms of its ability to gather information about people," said state Representative Jonathan Hecht, a co-sponsor of the bill. "We need to have a conversation about how to balance legitimate uses of this technology with protecting people's legitimate expectation of privacy."


The bill would require law enforcement agencies to scrub their plate data after 48 hours.


Citing the First Amendment, data brokers argue that the scanning pertains to license plates in public, which are available for anyone to record. In their opposition to the bill, they also say they do not disclose the plate's owner, though their banking, insurance, and other clients can access the information.


The private companies also claim that inhibiting scanners would damage police efforts.


"I fear that the proposed legislation would essentially create a safe haven in the Commonwealth for certain types of criminals, it would reduce the safety of our officers, and it could ultimately result in lives lost," said Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing at Vigilant, the corporate parent of Digital Recognition.


Privacy advocates say the data points gleaned by the scanners pose a highly intrusive risk to the public. For example, data brokers can translate plate numbers simply by accessing information from a state's motor vehicle registry.


"Right now, it's the wild West in terms of how companies can collect, process, and sell this kind of data," said Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "The best legal minds, best public policy thinkers, and ordinary people whose lives are affected need to sit down and think of meaningful ways we can regulate it."






Source 2

"Who Has the Right to Track You?" By David Sirota, In These Times, March 7, 2014


As states begin to rein in mass surveillance, corporations argue that they have a right to collect data.


Do corporations have a legal right to track your car? If you think that is a purely academic question, think again. Working with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, states are considering laws to prevent private companies from continuing to mass photograph license plates.


This is one of the backlashes to the news about mass surveillance. However, this backlash is now facing legal pushback from the corporations who take the photographs and then sell the data gleaned from the images.


In a lawsuit against the state of Utah, Digital Recognition Network, Inc. and Vigilant Solutions are attempting to appropriate the ACLU's own pro-free speech arguments for themselves. They argue that a recent Utah law banning them from using automated cameras to collect images, locations and times of license plates is a violation of their own free speech rights. Indeed, in an interview, DRN's counsel Michael Carvin defends this practice by noting, "Everyone has a First Amendment right to take these photographs and disseminate this information."


He argues that a license plate is an inherently public piece of information.


"The only purpose of license plate information is to identify a vehicle to members of the public," he says. "The government has no problem with people taking pictures of license plates in a particular location. But for some irrational reason it has a problem with people taking high speed photographs of those license plates."


The analogy to an individual's right to take photos only goes so far, though. Vigilant's website notes that "DRN fuels a national network of more than 550 affiliates," its tracking "technology is used in every major metropolitan area" and it "captures data on over 50 million vehicles each month."


"This is a complicated area where we are going to need to carefully balance First Amendment rights of corporations versus individuals privacy rights," says ACLU attorney Catherine Crump. "The mere fact that an individual has a First Amendment right doesn't mean that right is unlimited. There are circumstances under which the government is free to regulate speech."


Crump cited the Fair Credit Reporting Act and laws regulating the dissemination of health information as examples of legal privacy-related restrictions of speech rights.


"One could argue that the privacy implications of a private individual taking a picture of a public place is sufficiently less than a company collecting millions of license plate images," Crump says. "Especially with technology becoming more widespread and databases going back in time, there may be justification for regulation."


The Wall Street Journal reports that DRN's own website boasted to its corporate clients that it can "combine automotive data such as where millions of people drive their cars ... with household income and other valuable information" so companies can "pinpoint consumers more effectively." Yet, in announcing its lawsuit, DRN and Vigilant argue that their methods do not violate individual privacy because the "data collected, stored or provided to private companies (and) to law enforcement ... is anonymous, in the sense that it does not contain personally identifiable information."


In response, Crump says: "This is the same argument that the NSA made in the face of public outcry about its collection of telephone metadata, The argument was essentially, we're not collecting information about people, we are collecting info about telephone numbers. But every telephone number is associated with an individual, just like a license plate is."


The courts could follow corporate personhood precedents and strengthen First Amendment protections for private firms. Alternately, the courts could more narrowly rule on whether individuals' license plate information is entitled to any minimal privacy protections.

Either way, the spat epitomizes how the collision of free speech rights, the desire for private and the expansion of data-collecting technology is raising huge questions about what is— and is not— public.





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