Editorial: State values cash more than privacy in selling driver information

Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles allows the sale of private driver information to commercial interests. The Justice Department and Legislature should review the situation.
Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles allows the sale of private driver information to commercial interests. The Justice Department and Legislature should review the situation.
Published Dec. 1, 2016

Florida has a broad public records law aimed at ensuring government is accessible to the public. It is not particularly popular in Tallahassee, where the Legislature annually carves out new exemptions. So it's remarkable that the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is liberally interpreting the public records law to allow the sale of private driver information to commercial interests — and generate millions for the department. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has asked the Justice Department to review the situation, and the Legislature should as well.

In a four-month investigation, Tampa TV station WTVT-Fox 13 found that the DHSMV sells private driver records in bulk to more than 75 companies, despite federal and state laws deeming the information confidential. The federal Driver Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1994, says state motor vehicle agencies cannot disclose personal information "without the express consent of the person to whom such information applies." Florida passed its own law a few years later. Personal information is defined as photographs, Social Security numbers, driver identification numbers, names, addresses, phone numbers, and medical or disability information. There are exceptions for government agencies carrying out official functions, private investigators, research activities and statistical reports, and some private businesses as long as the information is only used for verification purposes. Bulk distribution of personal information for marketing or solicitation is permitted only with the individual's express consent.

Yet Fox 13 found that the DHSMV sells personal information about Florida's 15.5 million licensed drivers and 18 million registered vehicles to private vendors, including two major data brokers. The state claims it vets the companies to ensure they are entitled to the information under one of the law's exemptions — but that vetting is limited to checking that the companies have business registration in Florida, the department told Fox 13. What's more, the state has no way to keep the information from being handed off or resold to third parties.

A DHSMV spokeswoman said the agency is required to provide the records under the federal and state laws. The $150 million it raked in over the last two years is based on fees set by the Legislature. But nothing in the law requires the state to sell information for its own profit. And if a member of the public is not entitled to this information, how can a business be given access? The agency also denies that the information it sells is used for marketing. But the TV investigation found numerous examples of people registering a car in Florida and then receiving dozens of mail pieces for car warranties and other products that included the owner's name, address and car model.

It should be possible to stop this exploitation. Nelson has asked for an inquiry into whether Florida is violating the federal driver privacy act. The Legislature has even more latitude — it can't broaden the protections in the federal law, but it can certainly tighten those protections in state law. There's no reason Florida's deference to government in the sunshine cannot be upheld while still protecting Floridians' private information from being freely bought and sold.

State agencies have a dual duty both to provide access to records that are subject to disclosure and to protect information and records that are exempt. The state motor vehicle agency is failing on the latter by selling Florida drivers' private information in bulk to make a buck. This exposes Floridians to unwanted, incessant marketing, which is annoying, and real privacy breaches, which are more threatening. The entire process should be reviewed.