Arizona DMV Sells Drivers' Photos and SSNs to Private Investigators

Whereas many DMVs sell drivers’ names, addresses, or vehicle information, the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) sells some residents’ most personal information.
August 28, 2020, 1:00pm
DMV data
Image: Cathryn Virginia

The Arizona Motor Vehicle Department (MVD), essentially the state’s version of the DMV, sells drivers' photographs and Social Security Numbers to private investigators, according to a private investigator and the department itself.

The sale highlights the continued distribution of drivers' personal information to businesses, which privacy experts and lawmakers have repeatedly criticized recently. But whereas many DMVs generally limit their sales to data such as names, vehicle registration information, or addresses, Arizona sells some of the most sensitive information held by people living in the U.S.

"In Phoenix, Arizona, I can walk down into it [the MVD] and I can get the photo of somebody," Dorian Bond, a private investigator from Bond Investigations told Motherboard. "That's good because if I'm doing surveillance on a house for someone or an insurance company, I want to verify who the person is."

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Valerie McGilvrey, a Texas-based skip tracer whose job involves locating people and who said she has accessed DMV data in general, told Motherboard why a private investigator may want to obtain someone's SSN.

"For us, Social Security Numbers are used to determine if the person's record that I'm looking at is the correct person. Also to detect fraud as some people will use a fictitious social when applying for credit or a lease property because they have bad credit," she said. Skip tracers may be hired to trace people who are behind on payments they owe or if they are a fugitive.

Private investigators can also use an SSN to look people up in other private databases. Igor Ostrovskiy, a New York based private investigator with Ostro Intelligence, told Motherboard those can include so-called asset searches, which require a date of birth and a SSN to locate retirement or savings accounts.

As Motherboard has previously reported, DMVs across the country sell drivers' information to a wide range of private entities, including consumer credit reporting company Experian and research company LexisNexis. Some DMV documents explicitly say that the purpose of this selling is to bring in revenue.

"This is a revenue generating contract," one document from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles previously obtained by Motherboard reads.

The records DMVs sell, including to private investigators, can include a drivers' name, address, date of birth, phone number, email address, and ZIP code. Multiple DMVs previously stressed to Motherboard that they do not sell the photographs from peoples' drivers' licenses or their Social Security Numbers. The Arizona MVD differs however.

"The law has strict criteria for private investigators to obtain photos and Arizona can provide them in such instances," Doug Nick, Assistant Communications Director for Customer Outreach at the Arizona Department of Transportation, told Motherboard in an email. "Social Security Numbers are included if the criteria are met," he added in another email. In one of his emails, Nick included a link to the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), the law that governs how DMVs can distribute data.

“I can walk down into it [the MVD] and I can get the photo of somebody.”

"The release of personally identifiable information is covered in federal law. MVD adheres to the provisions of this law," Nick added.

But as multiple private investigators explained to Motherboard, the reasons investigators can give to DMVs in order to access data can be overbroad and open to abuse. In some cases investigators can simply say they need the data anticipation of litigation, but the client may not end up filing a lawsuit at all.

After the publication of this piece, Nick added in a follow up email that money sourced from the sale of MVD data "is appropriated by elected lawmakers and some is managed by the Arizona Department of Administration to support application development, website development, online payment processing, hosting and support services for State agencies. Other dollars go to the state highway fund to help build and maintain roadways throughout Arizona."

In July 2019 The Washington Post reported that DMVs are providing photos taken from peoples' drivers' licenses to the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the benefit of facial recognition systems.

Update: This piece has been updated to include more information from Doug Nick, Assistant Communications Director for Customer Outreach at the Arizona Department of Transportation.