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So Long to the Repo Man

The Sunday New York Times usually offers a number of interesting features on IP and tech topics, and yesterday was no exception.  My favorite piece was this one, about the demise of the old-style Repo Man.  As in so many areas, human judgment and discipline are being superseded by surveillance, data, and automation:

At the core of this technology-intensive trend is a set of high-speed digital cameras mounted on the hood and trunk of a vehicle that snap pictures of license plates while passing other vehicles, even at 80 miles per hour. Photos of the plates (including the time the photo was taken and the car’s GPS coordinates) instantly pop up on a laptop computer inside the repo man’s vehicle. Optical character recognition software converts the plate numbers to text.

The process gets more technical: the plate numbers are checked against an encrypted database of delinquent cars, compiled from lenders and stored on the computer, which is refreshed continuously using a wireless link. In most cases, the license plates photographed are attached to cars with no payment problems. But when a plate on a wanted list is found, the computer screen displays further information, including the make and model, its vehicle identification number, or VIN, and the name of the lender. The data is used to confirm that the right car has been found — scofflaws sometimes swap license plates, for instance.

If the car is parked, a tow truck can be called in; if not, the repo man can follow the car and, with luck and tact, negotiate a handover when the driver parks.

Contrast that description of “code is law” with old-style, fictional “code is law”:

I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm. It’s what I call the repo code, kid. Don’t forget it — etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by anymore.

That’s Harry Dean Stanton, in Repo Man, a terrific old(er) cult film.  (It was released in 1984 and co-starred Emilio Estevez.)

I don’t want to get too nostalgic for old-style repo men, nor do I diminish the benefits of the new technology.  It’s wise to watch out for its abuses (in both contexts), and to watch out for what comes next.  Why waste all that gas driving around and scanning cars as they drive by?  The cloud is a powerful place.  Why not link a cheap transmitter on the car to (i) the borrower’s account with the lender and (ii) to the relevant state vehicle registry and (iii) to a regulated pool of repossessors?  If a borrower misses X number of payments, the wheel of (mis)fortune automatically lights up in the garage of the next towing company on the list, which tracks down the transmitter and collects the car.

Or perhaps this sort of thing is already in development.  When I taught Secured Transactions years ago, I read that automobile license plates were inventions largely for the benefit of banks, not for the benefit of public safety departments.  I can’t quickly track down a source for that, so that statement may be apocryphal.  But the NYT story hints strongly that lenders are behind the new repo technology, not repo men themselves.