R.L. Polk & Co: From General Motors to Google

The Polks were one of Detroit’s earliest prominent business families. Ralph Lane Polk, the founder, obtained financing in 1872 for his first directories from James Scripps, who would later go on to publish the Detroit News.

When legendary General Motors chairman Alfred Sloan took control of the car giant in in the early 1920s, he tapped Ralph Lane Polk II to have the family firm conduct the nation’s first automotive census.

When the U.S. auto industry shifted production from cars to armaments in World War II, the federal government enlisted Polk to handle the complex lists for food and fuel rationing, while also doing classified projects for the military.

And in the postwar boom years, Polk became so successful that its directory division was sued by federal antitrust regulators.

On other fronts, Polk continued to partner with America’s government: helping to compile the U.S. Census; and finding and notifying millions of vehicle owners about safety recalls of cars and trucks.

R.L. Polk also fought landmark legal battles over access to, and use of, motor vehicle records. The privacy issues raised in such cases are echoed today in high-profile controversies ranging from the power of Facebook and Google to the dispute between the FBI and Apple over access to iPhone passwords in the wake of the 2016 San Bernardino mass shootings.

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