My name is Kevin. I write a newspaper column, which means, if you read this space regularly, you know more about me than you bargained for.
You don’t know what kind of car I drive — and while I am not ashamed of my ride, I’m not going to tell you what it is.
No matter. Someone out there knows. And someone knows what you’re driving too.
And here’s what neither of us knew, until a few days ago. The Idaho Transportation Department has been pocketing a cool $5.4 million a year selling off this kind of information. When you renew your license or register a vehicle — compulsory acts, if you plan to drive legally in the state — you are, in so doing, adding to a valuable public database.
A big year for Big Brother? Fairly or unfairly, it inescapably feels that way.
It feels troubling that the ITD has been surreptitiously selling off vehicle registration data and other personal information — a practice that came to light last week, when Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press wrote about the data-peddling.
Ultimately, that’s my problem with this. Because the ITD has been selling off my data, and yours, in secret, it feels like the agency is doing something underhanded.
Even if that isn’t the case.
The data can have several legitimate uses. It can be used to track down parties in civil or criminal cases, to track down parking ticket scofflaws, to check on auto insurance status, or to help get the word out on car recalls.
Nothing really Big Brother about any of this. I can’t get worked up over any of the law enforcement functions. If my aforementioned and unidentified car is subject to a recall, I’d like to know.
But, as the AP notes, the data also is used by companies that want to research car buying habits. Here’s where the road gets wet and, inevitably, slippery. It’s not a far reach to think that this data would be coveted — and could be purloined — by a company that wants to pitch me a neato accessory for my car.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to make that leap. You need merely be a capitalist.
Spokesman Jeff Stratten told the AP that the ITD works to enforce the rules on the appropriate use of the bulk data. On top of that, he says, companies have a powerful incentive to comply, or risk being cut off in the future.
Well, maybe. But there also exists a powerful incentive for companies to push the boundaries in the interest of profit.
But as long as the ITD is willing to trust the commercial sector to do the right thing, why didn’t the agency trust the people for whom it works? Why did the ITD seem to act as if the sale of our personal information was somehow none of our business?
We all should been informed, upfront, that license and registration information is subject to sale?
And not just because it’s the right thing to do. By publicizing this practice upfront, the people will be better informed — and better equipped to report spam and scams to the ITD.
So far, Stratten told AP, such complaints have been rare. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now that the ITD’s data sales practice has come to light, it’s safe to assume the agency will hear more questions and complaints. And that’s a good thing, even if it creates some extra work for ITD staffers.
Information — about you, about me, and about us all — is a precious commodity. Its value is increasing, just as surely as the value of that car of mine is depreciating. I don’t expect the ITD to walk away from what is now a $5.4 million, tax-free revenue source. I do expect government agencies, including but not limited to ITD, to be transparent in the way it brokers information.
That is, after all, our business.