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DOT Sells Drivers' Personal Information

Published On: Jun 02 2011 07:32:50 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 03 2011 11:21:49 AM CDT
MADISON, Wis. -

There are about 4.5 million drivers in Wisconsin, and more than half may not know their personal information is being sold by the state Department of Transportation.

There are laws but almost no oversight to how the Wisconsin DOT uses drivers' information.

In all, the state makes millions of dollars by selling drivers' information, WISC-TV reported.

Before a person becomes an official Wisconsin driver and gets his or her license, there's time to consider two decisions at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

One is whether that person wishes to be recorded as a potential organ donor.

But drivers are also asked to check a box if they wish to have their name and address "withheld from the list the department sells."

About 2.5 million Wisconsin drivers didn't check the box to withhold their information. By not doing so, those drivers allow the DOT to sell their information on a monthly basis.

Some may not have noticed the other inquiry.

"It was kind of small (on the form). I didn't really notice it at first," said Sierra Scott, a Madison resident.

But it's not just a person's name and addresses. The driver record file includes a person's name, address, date of birth, gender, driver's license number and driving status.

The entire driver record file containing information on 2.5 million drivers can be purchased for $250.

"We produce a CD containing the record file and then we send that. Those funds are sent to the registration fee trust," said Taqwanya Smith, director for the DMV's Bureau of Driver Services.

In 2010, the DOT made $22,250 selling driver record files.

"I think the cost is representative of the amount of effort it takes to produce the records," Smith said.

Smith, who administers state and federal laws at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said that anyone can buy the driver record file, getting access to information for the drivers who haven't opted out.

"Wisconsin is an open records state, and by that Wisconsin presumes that the public has a right to know about information contained within government records," Smith said.

Federal law defines who can get the information and how they can use it.

"The (Drivers Privacy Protection Act) authorizes us to disclose to anyone meeting that criteria," Smith said.

But no state or federal agency tracks who is buying drivers' information or what they use it for. If people check the right box, they get the information, with no questions asked and no follow up, WISC-TV reported.

"Our responsibility ends once a person or entity receives that driver record file," Smith said.

Smith confirmed that federal law does not allow for the release of personal identifiers for surveys, marketing or solicitations.

But when WISC-TV asked her if this could be happening, Smith replied, "It could. We don't know if it is."

In 2009, Mark Grebner, president of Practical Political Consulting in Michigan, said he set out to update his Wisconsin voter file.

But because Wisconsin's voter file doesn't include date of birth, Practical Political Consulting looked to the Wisconsin DOT.

"The voter lists we sell, the candidates want to know how old people are," Grebner said. "We filled out the form properly; we sent it in. They (the DOT) sent back the data. I think they knew what we're doing."

The firm matched names with addresses in both files and added dates of birth to voter lists. Then it sold the information to several Wisconsin campaign consultants, WISC-TV reported.

The firm's request form to the DOT said it's authorized for use in research activities, as long as personal information is not published, re-disclosed or used to contact individuals.

"If you're mailing to voters, you don't just want to mail to everybody who's a voter. You want to mail to people for whom some issue is important or who are likely to vote in a given election or whatever," Grebner said.

The DOT said it only complies with the federal laws, deferring to the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the Driver Privacy Protection Act.

"We don't take a position on anyone's use on the records we provide," Smith said. "That enforcement process is for the Department of Justice."

John Vaudreuil, U.S. attorney for Wisconsin's western district, said his office has only received one complaint about five years ago that "didn't amount to much."

"We've never actually prosecuted or gone to the next level with anything like this," Vaudreuil said. "It may very well be that it's such an age of your addresses are everywhere, you get mailings of every solicitation in the world; you read them or don't read them, and it just may be people aren't that concerned. I don't really know."

Social Security numbers are kept private and are not shared with requests submitted under the Drivers Privacy Protection Act or law enforcement.

Current law requires the DMV to provide Social Security numbers to the Department of Workforce Development if someone has not paid child support and the Department of Revenue for unpaid taxes. In rare instances, a court may order the DMV to provide the Social Security number for a court proceeding and the federal government is authorized access to Social Security numbers under commercial driver license (CDL) guidelines.

Under the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, date of birth is not considered personal information and therefore is not protected.

Grebner said he doesn't think he violated the law. He said, either way, he didn't find the driver record file useful so he probably won't buy it again.

The state of Wisconsin is making millions off of selling a second list with drivers' personal information, WISC-TV reported.

The department makes more money and has more requests for full driving records. These contain the same information as the driver record file plus information on traffic crashes, tickets and withdrawals like revocation or suspensions.

While the driver record file costs $250, full driving records cost between $5 and $7 per driver record.

In 2010, the DOT made more than $16 million selling full driving records, WISC-TV reported.

Explore Information Services buys full driving records each month.

"We provide specific information about specific individuals that they insure so they can establish the rates for that particular driver," said Michael John, a company spokesman, in a phone interview.

Explore Information Services has a contract with the DOT and a monthly bill of approximately $170,000.

But Explore doesn?t have the largest contract with the DOT. That belongs to LexisNexis.

The department said, "LexisNexis works with insurance agents for six month policy updates and immediate insurance quotes."

This could potentially be the reason drivers are able to call an insurance company for a quote and be provided one quickly.

The DOT said that LexisNexis pays the department $874,618 every month.

While most purchasers of both files are vehicle insurance consulting and marketing firms, no state or federal agency can say if the mailings people get originated from information purchased through the DOT.

In place in Wisconsin since 2000, the Driver Privacy Protection Act only goes as far as Wisconsin motorists allow.

"And to me, that's sort of the lesson from (this), is to read what we sign and make a decision," said Vaudreuil.

"I did check it, so I don't want (my information) on the list they sell. But I guess it'd be nice if they clarified it a little bit," said Darren Gray, a Wisconsin driver.

When people go to the DMV to get or renew their driver's license, the form will ask them if they would like to have their name/address withheld from the lists the department sells. If people don't remember if they checked this box or would like to now opt out, they can find more information at http://www.dot.state.wi.us/drivers/optout.htm.

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