DMVs Are Making Millions of Dollars Selling Drivers' Personal Data to Third Parties: Report

Who's buying this info? Mainly private investigators and insurance companies. However, not every transaction has proven to be lawful.

People wait in line outside of the State
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Long wait lines and forgetting proper documentation apparently aren’t the only concerns when applying for a new license or vehicle registration at your local department of motor vehicles. Vice.com’s Motherboard team recently obtained a number of financial documents revealing that the DMVs in several states are making extra cash by selling personal records to third-parties, sometimes unlawfully.

According to the team’s finding, DMVs in multiple states have made as much as tens of millions of dollars every year from selling data on registered and licensed drivers. Although DMV records are considered public, selling the data for specific purposes, like for authorized private investigators, towing, or insurance companies, is supposedly considered a normal practice within the agencies. But not everyone outside, such as the general public, knows this and some of those transactions weren’t so legitimate, including ones that sold data to unauthorized private investigators, bail bond firms, and bounty hunters.

As an example, the outlet discovered that the Rhode Island DMV made as much as $384,000 selling personal data between 2015 and 2019, while the state of Wisconsin made as much as a whopping $17,140,914 in the 2018 fiscal year, as confirmed in an email from department spokesperson. And the state of Florida definitely ranks one of the highest, making over $77 million off these transactions in the year 2017 alone.

Better yet, there are others buying up the info as well. Motherboard found that credit reporting agencies like Experian buy the data in bulk and financial transaction spreadsheets from the Virginia DMV, New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, and Delaware DMV revealed dozens of data sale and sharing agreements. Motherboard alleges the numbers are even higher since they didn’t obtain records from all 50 states.

The sale of some information to private investigators is totally legal as per an exception with a law passed in the 1990s called the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, where it allows for the authorized sale of DMV records for specific purposes and the process can vary by state. But not all the transactions between certain states’ DMV departments are law-abiding, according to Motherboard’s findings.

Lawmakers passed the DPPA in 1994 after a stalker was able to obtain information of a victim through a request with a private investigator. That stalker went on to murder the victim and thus the DPPA was passed to limit access to DMV records. But it also included a plethora of exceptions.

In apparent neutered responses to Motherboard’s inquiries, several DMVs told the outlet that they do not sell any incredibly sensitive information, such as social security numbers or driver license photographs. But they do sell information such as a driver’s name and address, along with their residency zip code, phone number, email address, and even their date of birth.

"This is a revenue-generating contract," a spokesperson for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles told Motherboard.

"The DPPA is one of several federal laws that should now be updated," Marc Rotenberg told Motherboard in an email. Rotenberg is the president and executive director of EPIC, a group dedicated to promoting privacy. "I would certainly reduce the number of loopholes.”