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Driver's Privacy Protection Act Seems Fairly Useless

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the bulk purchase of motor vehicle records without a specific need for every record does not violate the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

Plaintiffs in the case claimed that a number of defendants, (including Ascom, the named defendant), violated the DPPA and the plaintiffs' right to privacy by obtaining, using, reselling, and disclosing personal information contained in Kentucky motor vehicle records without a permissible purpose.

Congress enacted the DPPA in response to growing concerns over the ease with which stalkers and other criminals could obtain personal information from state departments of motor vehicles. Congress was also concerned about the practice in many states of selling personal information from motor vehicle records to businesses, marketers, and others for, at times, significant revenue.

Under the Act, a state's department of motor vehicles cannot knowingly disclose drivers' personal information, or make the information otherwise available. The law carved out mandatory and permissive exceptions to the prohibitions, which allow states to sell drivers' information to third parties as long as the third parties have "permissible uses for the information."

(Lest you think the law was completely neutered by the potential for commercial sell-out, an authorized recipient who obtains drivers' information through resale or redisclosure is also limited to using the information only for authorized purposes.)

In this case, the plaintiffs argued that the defendants couldn't have had a permissible purpose for each specific driver's record because they obtained the records in bulk.

The district court dismissed the case in December 2010, finding that the bulk purchase of such motor vehicle records without a "specific need for every record" did not violate the DPPA. This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court.

Relying on a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion involving the same issue, Judge Lawrence Zatkoff noted that Congress did not specify in the DPPA that records could only be obtained individually, so the text of the statute strongly indicates that it allows both individual and bulk distribution.

The DPPA can stop a state from handing drivers' information to stalkers and other criminals, (because those types always self-identify), but it's an otherwise anemic means of privacy protection.

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