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DMV needs to rethink its practice of peddling customers’ private information

Should the state Department of Motor Vehicles be selling the personal information of the millions of New Yorkers who get and renew driver’s licenses and car registrations?

Not without a serious discussion first.

Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs sounded the alarm on the practice last week after being made aware of a news report that aired downstate. The sale of personal information is, to be sure, a sign of the times, but some key distinctions exist between the private companies that sell your data and a powerful arm of state government that is inevitable to virtually every New Yorker over 16 years old.

According to the news report, the DMV took in $60 million last year from the information divulged by drivers and vehicle owners. Much of that money went into the state general fund, Jacobs believes, and not into road and bridge maintenance. He noted, for example, that $32 million in fees generated in Erie County last year didn’t go to the DMV but into the state’s general fund.

Americans are well acquainted with the loss of privacy that the digital age ushered in. They voluntarily give away valuable information to merchants of all sorts, from grocers to travel websites.

In those places, though, consumers have a choice, at least theoretically. They can read the disclosure statements and refuse to go along. They can take their business elsewhere – probably only to run into the same thing, but there exists at least the possibility of changing business behaviors by changing buying habits.

Not so with the state government. If you need a driver’s license or a car registration, you have no choice but to deal with the DMV. This is a government-run monopoly and, as such, should be required to operate under a more restrictive set of regulations.

What is your choice if you don’t want Albany to sell your information? Can you opt out? In fact, New York – the most regulation-happy state in the country – should be required, at a minimum, to allow New Yorkers to opt in, with an explanation of why they will benefit. New Yorkers employ the leaders and workers in the DMV, after all. The authority should flow from those who pay the salaries.

That shouldn’t be an impossible task. Make the case that the extra $60 million provides taxpayers with something of benefit, besides keeping spending high. Commit to using it for road and bridge maintenance and make the case to New Yorkers that this loss of privacy is worth the cost.

But this needs to be an open and transparent transaction. Government is a different beast from an Internet shopping site. It’s not good enough to bury information in the 180th paragraph of tiny type.

Be up front, and do it now.