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I-Team: Texas Firm Tracking Your Car With License Plate Cameras

FORT WORTH (CBS 11 NEWS) – Chances are better than 50-50 that the Fort Worth firm Digital Recognition Network (DRN) at some point has taken a picture of your vehicle's license plate. The odds increase to nearly 100-percent if you live in a major city or have ever gone to a shopping mall, according to the company.

In the past six years, DRN has accumulated a network of more than 1,000 license plate readers located across the country. Often thought of as just a tool for law enforcement to track down stolen vehicles, DRN is using automatic license plate readers to revolutionize the re-possession industry.

At a rate of up to 60 reads a second, the high-tech license plate readers can scan parking lots and neighborhood streets for wanted vehicles.

"Our technology really replaces the eyeballs of those people hanging their heads out the windows," explained company CEO Chris Metaxes.

The cameras, primarily placed on tow trucks, have captured in the past six years more than 1.8 billion license plates. For comparison, among local police departments, the Grapevine Police Department has the largest database of license plate reads with 4.7 million records.

Every one of DRN's license plate reads, along with when and where the picture was taken, is stored in the company's massive database. Banks then pay big bucks to access the database – using the information to pinpoint the location of vehicles up for repossession.

The size of the company's network, along with the stealth-like operation, has caught the attention of some privacy watchdogs.

Kurt Schwarz, a Dallas attorney, said he doesn't expect to be driving around "in secret," but he doesn't expect "to be followed" either.

With a network of thousands of cameras, Schwarz said, that's essentially what can happen. He said the information in DRN's database could potentially be used to track where someone goes to church, the frequency they go to a bar, or if they're seeing a doctor, among other private activities.

Metaxes told the I-Team his company is not invading anyone's privacy, noting that the database only contains numbers, with no names attached to the license plates.

To appease some of the privacy concerns, most local police departments have decided, usually within a year, to purge information taken from license plates. DRN, however, has never deleted a record in its six years of existence.

"We think the deletion of data represents a caving in on the part of law enforcement," explained Metaxas. He added that DRN's database becomes increasingly valuable as it grows. "It makes everyone more productive. It's a natural thing, and if you think about it, there's no stopping it."

States such as Maryland and Utah have unsuccessfully attempted to restrict the massive storing of information lifted from license plates. In Texas, though, there's been little talk among lawmakers about any restrictions.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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