By on April 28, 2016


The phrase “disruptive technology” has long since been co-opted to mean “a new iPhone app for people to share photos of their meals” but it has an original and genuine meaning as well: any technology that matures faster than society’s ability to use it constructively. The list of disruptive technologies includes entries as diverse as mustard gas and the automobile itself, but the advent of the connected world has unleashed a diverse cornucopia of unintended consequences ranging from Amazon’s destruction of brick-and-mortar retailers to the corrosive effect that the various “reunion” and “classmates” websites have on American marriages.

TTAC has covered the world of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) several times, most recently discussing a company that assists police with collecting outstanding court costs and fines against motorists in traffic. We’ve also discussed the fact that governmental use of ALPRs amounts to a sort of camel’s nose under the tent.

Here’s the rest of the camel.

Founded by former cocaine smuggler Hank Asher, TLO is a data-mining corporation that was purchased by TransUnion, the credit bureau, a few years ago. The idea behind TLO is a fundamentally disruptive one: by using massive amounts of computer power to tie together disparate sources of legally acquired information, it’s possible to know more about someone than you could know simply by considering those information sources individually. The money-shot quote comes from Asher himself, regarding the September 11th attacks:

“You could accidentally live next door to Mohammed Atta… You couldn’t accidentally live next door to Mohammed Atta twice.”

The unspoken conclusion to that — so if you live next door to Mohammed Atta twice, you’re automatically guilty of terrorism — is either brilliant or utterly reprehensible, depending on where you personally stand on old-fashioned concepts like individual liberty and privacy. It’s also an example of how massive data-crunching is very good at establishing who someone is, or whom they might be.

Mr. Asher is dead now, but his philosophy lives on in the TLOxp Vehicle Sightings Data product. TLO brags that they have a billion sightings in their database and are adding fifty million sightings a month. Combined with TLO’s other sources of information, ranging from TransUnion’s extensive credit records to TLO’s social-media monitoring, this tool allows you to build an extensive portrait of someone based on a very small snippet of initial information.

What are the legitimate uses of this data? I can maybe think of one: repossessing a car. Maybe. Nor is TLO’s self-policing stance on the data’s use in any way reassuring. The company’s guidelines permit at least the following uses:

Use in the normal course of business by a legitimate business or its agents, employees, or contractors, but only to verify the accuracy of personal information submitted by the individual to the business or its agents, employees, or contractors; and, if such information as so submitted is not correct or is no longer correct, to obtain the correct information, but only for the purposes of preventing fraud by, pursuing legal remedies against, or recovering on a debt or security interest against, the individual… Use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding, in any federal, state, or local court or agency, or before any self-regulatory body… Use by any insurer or insurance support organization, or by a self-insured entity… Use by any licensed private investigative agency or licensed security service for any purpose described above.

Self-regulatory bodies? Self-insured entities? Civil proceedings? Administrative proceedings? Is there any way to make those loopholes bigger? And why, exactly, do any of those broadly defined parties need information on someone’s physical location and travel habits? If I provide my home address to the nice people at Revzilla so they can ship me a new visor for my motorcycle helmet, are they automatically entitled to know which park I take my son to so he can fly a kite? If somebody decides to trip on my sidewalk and sue me, do they have the right to know that I was in Las Vegas two weekends ago?

No, the truth is almost certainly that this information will be most valuable to people who are likely to abuse it – and TLO almost certainly knows this. The fact that private investigative agencies are specifically named at the end of TLO’s dog-ate-my-homework list is all but a smoking gun. TLOxp’s ALPR system can instantly find needles in a billion-entry haystack. Consider the possibilities. You’re an abusive husband whose wife has fled the state. Under normal circumstances, you’d find it difficult to locate her — but she has to register a car if she wants to have a job or a life most places, and TLOxp can find that car. So even if she’s savvy enough to use a dropbox service or a relative for all of her credit-related activities, TLOxp can still tell you where that woman works, where she travels, where she spends her nights.

Is your use of the system legitimate? If you’re engaged in a court proceeding against her, probably. If she’s a creditor of yours, perhaps by dint of escaping with your car, then absolutely. If you aren’t engaged in a court case against her, of course, you can always start a frivolous one — and indeed, abusive spouses rank high on the lists of frivolous litigators. Or you can just slip the private investigator an extra thousand bucks. I’ve hired PIs in the past for various business-related purposes and I have to say that none of them ever struck me as paragons of personal integrity.

It’s safe to say that the laws regarding license plates and vehicle registrations in this country were not written with a capacity like this in mind. The governmental creation of a nationwide personal-tracking database would be the sort of thing that unites all but the most hardcore statists against it. The private creation of such a database is a thousand times worse, since it’s available to the government as well as to private entities, but suffers from none of the restrictions that would inevitably hamper such a thing were it to be instituted on a federal level.

With any luck, this truly disruptive technology will eventually be strongly regulated in the public interest. In the meantime … um, I don’t know, try not to make anybody mad at you? Write to your ex-husband and beg his forgiveness? Take the subway? Just hope for the best? Use a homemade license-plate flipper?

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35 Comments on “Transunion Deploys Great New Tool for Stalking and Killing Ex-Wives...”

  • avatar

    We already have technology to stalk and kill X-Wives.

    It’s called FACEBOOK.

  • avatar

    Scary stuff. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Jack!

  • avatar

    great article Jack and BTSR, you are one of a kind.

  • avatar

    This goes far beyond a license plate database. It really gets down to how to regulate the collection and distribution of data that, when isolated, is both very public and boringly routine, but when aggregated, is creepy and harmful.

    The trick is how do you write laws and regulations to allow perfectly legit use, but prevent creepy-stalker-ness? When does the fact your publicly-displayed license plate was seen on a public street at a certain time cross over from legit to “there oughta be a law!”

    The same questions can be asked about voting records, purchase histories, address lists, and a host of other things.

  • avatar

    “The phrase ‘disruptive technology’ has long since been co-opted to mean ‘a new iPhone app for people to share photos of their meals\'”

    And genitals.

    • 0 avatar

      ““The phrase ‘disruptive technology’ has long since been co-opted to mean ‘a new iPhone app for people to share photos of their meals’”

      And genitals.”

      Sometimes, at the same time!

  • avatar

    The solution to this is simple: make a law that states,
    “Thou shalt not use massively aggregated data in a manner that is creepy.”
    And let the lawyers quibble about the details. Problem solved, problem stayin’ solved.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Being one of the many who helped kill Lotus Marketplace, this terrifies me.

    Chelsea van Valkenburg and Randi Harper’s smiles widened just a little bit more.

  • avatar

    Damn this site has gone backwards. Jalopnik is more of an auto site now. Yet, I still like reading some of the “automobile” posts.

  • avatar

    Nassim Taleb, when warning of the dangers of Big Data, has often said that patterns can be found in truly random numbers: these do not disprove randomness.

  • avatar

    Instead of tracking being relegated to the rich or connected via private investigators, now everyone can get in on the fun.

    The problem, of course, is that regulations won’t work. Then all you do is stop the white-hats out there. If the data is there, then nefarious parties can find you.

    So what’s the answer? In a world where you can increasingly be tracked via financial statements and your phone amongst other things, I think the answer is less and less about regulating access to information, instead, maybe it’s time to rethink how we punish those who use data to nefarious purpose?

    • 0 avatar

      “nefarious” meaning non politically correct?

      It’s no harder than letting anyone print their own license plates. Change it once a second or so. Or just retain yours permanently with the picture of a raised middle finger. Solved.

      While justifiable taxes, meaning ones on land and goods movement across national border only, paid in Zerocoin or somesuch, or even Gold, would solve most of the other “problems” you mentioned.

      Eventually, cheap dna sniffers will make privacy a smidgen trickier, but the current “problems” are only problems on account of pervasive infrastructure put in place to enable and maintain a slave state. For the benefit of the slave owners. Not the slaves.

  • avatar

    “…indeed, abusive spouses rank high on the lists of frivolous litigators.”

    Yep. My ex tried to take me to court and invoke a third-party negotiator (to the tune of $150 an hour, which I would have to pay) clause on our divorce decree…because I objected to her taking the kids to a midnight showing of “The Hobbit” on a school night.

    And that’s just the most humorous example. Less humorous was stuff like making child abuse accusations that got me landed in court…and not showing up for the hearing.

    Worth noting: it happens to men too.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      It absolutely happens to men. And physical abuse of men by their wives happens far more often than the police statistics show.

      In general, however, men seem to be more likely to flat-out kill their spouses, which is why I used that example.

      • 0 avatar

        Absolutely right, and men don’t report it because it makes them look less manly. Then again, women tend to kill their ex spouses financially, so there’s that.

        Walking into a family court with XY chromosones is like starting the World Series by spotting the other team three games.

        In my case, I turned in a 700-page casebook full of my ex’s criminal activities (she’s currently on probation for felony check fraud), her multiple failures to send the kids to school or even get them basic medical or dental care, and the filthy, disgusting house she kept, and you know how the judge started our hearing? He lectured me for about five minutes…because it was RUMORED I had a Playboy magazine in my closet. Yes, that hardcore porn known as Playboy was RUMORED to be in my house. Granted, the rumor was true, but how did the rumor begin? My dear wifey had told my kids to rummage through my stuff to find it…which I actually caught her on video doing (long story).

        Courts are RIDICULOUSLY misandrist. I didn’t believe it until it happened to me. Thank God the kids eventually came to live with me, or I don’t know where they’d be now.

        And now my rant is done.

  • avatar

    Good thing stalkers have brand new tools at their disposal, formerly not available even if they’re banging a dirty cop. Now it just takes a dirty ‘repo man’ or BHPH.

    Licence plate scanners give up all your ‘goods’. Where you shop/workout/eat/grab a coffee every morning, who you visit, etc.

    And you used to have to be a cop to stick a ‘tracking device’ on any car. They come with a “Google Earth” app for your phone. Or look up any cellphone and know its real-time location.

  • avatar

    I guess stealing high value cars for immediate export just got a lot easier.

  • avatar

    OMG the Pizza Hut guy is Mohammed Atta!

  • avatar

    I find it ironic that a credit agency known for inaccuracy in its data on consumers (they have my current place of employment as the long-defunct HI-FI Store where I worked in 1979) feels that they can be “trusted” to provide accurate location tracking.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, mine still shows me working for WorldCom, even though the company’s been as dead as Francisco Franco for about 13 years now.

      Don’t sweat the small stuff, tho. As long as your tradelines are correct, that’s the main thing. I’m a mortgage underwriter, and I could care less where your credit report says you work…we get copies of your paychecks and W2s for that.

      Also, make sure your current address is correct…that can raise red flags with some lenders.

  • avatar

    Oh boy – and there are probably no laws about correcting/removing inaccurate information these data mongers accumulate. I believe they are not currently regulated – and even in the financial sector, the credit reporting agencies, who are under federal obligation to correct errors, don’t – there was a 60 minutes report a couple of years back about that – where a person with inaccurate credit data had to sue them in federal court to get corrections.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Mama

      Yes, this. Considering that when people falsely land on the TSA watch or worse, no-fly lists they discover a byzantine, Kafkaesque world of shut doors and grey bureaucrats who absolutely couldn’t care less about their plight when they try to set matters straight. This will be more of the same.
      When toll booths take my picture front & rear I feel my temperature rise. I fucking hate toll roads and they way they erase my privacy. Where I go is not their business, and certainly not worth my photo.

  • avatar

    I smell a movie script in here some where….

    Tom Hanks for the comedy version ,

    Tom Cruise for the crazy future world version .


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