How Vermont’s DMV makes millions of dollars selling personal information

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The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has been quietly selling the personal data of Vermonters seeking drivers licenses and vehicle registrations to private companies since 2004.

The state agency has made more than $15 million on sales of the data over the past four years, and the practice has raised privacy concerns. 

State records show the DMV has given approval to 700 companies and government agencies to purchase or receive personal data about drivers.

In 2015, the DMV made $3.4 million selling the information. From 2016 to 2018, the department brought in $4 million each year. Information about data sales in previous years was unavailable. 

DMV officials say the vast majority of the revenue comes from insurance companies and businesses who buy information about their employees’ driving histories. 

However, the department has also allowed law firms, private investigators and out-of-state corporations to buy or access personal information about Vermont drivers, including where they live, the cars they drive, their driving records and their criminal histories.

In the past 15 years, the state has allowed 50 private investigation firms to buy driver data, according to a list of the companies the state authorized to purchase the information. 

The list also includes a handful of out-of-state companies like Deloitte, an accounting giant, and “the world’s largest consulting firm,” Choicepoint Service Inc., a data aggregator that was bought by risk management and corporate research firm LexisNexis. Another firm,  Aristotle Inc., specializes in “identity and age verification solutions” for the government and private sector. 

The personal data the state sells includes information on licenses and vehicle registrations.

The database shows where people live, what cars are registered to them, whether they have criminal records, and their driving histories. 

The only information it won’t provide on any condition is driver medical information and Social Security numbers, according to DMV officials. Photographs are also not for sale. 

Vermont isn’t the only state whose DMV sells driver information — the practice is reportedly common across the country. 

Federal law requires DMVs to provide driver information to government agencies, and sell it to certain businesses including trucking firms, insurance agencies, and vehicle manufacturers. 

It also gives states discretion to sell the information to other companies. 

The Vermont DMV’s operations director, Michael Smith, said the department follows federal regulations and reviews each request for personal information on an individual basis. 

“We collect, and residents of Vermont entrust us with their personal identification and information and we take that very, very seriously,” Smith said. 

“We don’t just let anybody have it. We let those that are deemed to have a permissible use have access to the information that is permissible for them to use.” 

The majority of the names on the list obtained by VTDigger include government agencies, local businesses, and private law firms. 

While the DMV will sell personal information to some private entities, it refuses to sell to others. 

Companies or organizations seeking to use personal data for marketing purposes or political campaigning, for example, are refused access to the information, according to Smith. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in response to an investigation by Vice in September that found DMVs across the country are making millions selling data, called on the federal government to stop profiting off of the information. 

“The DMV should not use its trove of personal information as a tool to make money,” Sanders wrote in a statement to Vice

“Nobody — from agencies like the DMV to large corporations like Facebook and Google — should be profiting from sharing or selling personal information without meaningful consent. Congress must get serious about ending practices that violate the privacy of ordinary Americans,” Sanders said.

But some say that it’s essential for the DMV to sell information, and provide a channel for third parties to access the data. 

Susan Randall, a Vermont private investigator who runs VTPrivate Eye LLC, an investigations agency, said she often relies on the DMV’s information for her cases. 

Randall, who often works with criminal defense attorneys, said it’s vital for investigators to have access to the same information as police and prosecutors. 

“As a civil liberties issue, it’s important for us to have access to the same information that the other branch of government has,” Randall said. 

“You don’t want to be on the hot seat accused of a crime and not able to then look into the witnesses that are testifying against you.”  

Private investigators will use the DMV information to conduct background checks on witnesses, and see whether they have criminal histories. 

Randall, who is also the president of the Vermont Association of Investigative and Security Services, an industry group for investigators, added that the information is also important in other cases. 

The Department of Motor Vehicles in Montpelier. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

With the epidemic of opioid use, Randall has worked on many child custody cases. She said she can use the information in the DMV’s database to track down and surveil parents who might be using drugs while taking care of their children. 

According to Randall, she and other investigators can only access this information if they’re working on a specific civil or criminal case.

Randall understands why the public might be wary of the DMV selling personal information to investigators. But access to the information becomes essential when people find themselves accused of a crime, or in the position of mounting a legal argument. 

“Unless you’re in that situation, you don’t know why that’s relevant, and the knee jerk reaction is … ‘I don’t want anyone to know my stuff,’” Randall said. 

“And if you end up in court, or you end up in a custody situation, you sure as hell do want to know it.” 

Smith, of the DMV, also said that making it harder for companies to access the department’s information could have other implications. 

If it took longer for insurance companies to get information about drivers, rates could go up and it could take longer for consumers to become insured, he said. 

And if businesses couldn’t easily access information about the people they hire to drive, it could raise public safety concerns. 

James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I want the employer to know. I want safe drivers on the road — that’s what we’re all about,” Smith said.  

James Duff Lyall, the executive director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, said there needs to be “greater transparency” around the DMV’s practice of selling driver information. 

“I think at a minimum, Vermonters might be concerned to learn that their information is being sold without their knowledge or consent,” Lyall said. 

The DMV does not provide Vermonters notice that their information will be bought or sold when they give it to the department. But it does lay out how it can use drivers’ personal information on its website. There is no opt-out provision.

Lyall said the sale of personal information deserves more scrutiny given that the DMV’s use of driver data has been called into question before. 

In 2017, Gov. Phil Scott ordered the department to halt its use of facial recognition technology, after the ACLU said the practice violated a state law passed in 2004 restricting collection of biometric data.

The department had been using the technology to detect fraudulent applications, and had also been conducting facial recognition searches on behalf of law enforcement agencies including  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI. 

“Greater transparency about this practice would be warranted, particularly in light of the DMV’s recent history of using or misusing their private information,” Lyall said. 

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