BOSTON, Mass. (May 19, 2017) – Bills introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate would put strict limitations on the use of automated license plate reader systems (ALPRs) by the state. Passage into law would also place significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program using states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.
A bipartisan coalition of 13 representatives introduced House Bill 1842 (H1842) earlier this year. A Senate companion (S1909) was introduced at the same time. The legislation would limit law enforcement use of ALPRs to specific, enumerated law enforcement functions.
The bills also put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers. Government agencies would have to delete any ALPR data within 14 days. The legislation prohibits the sale, trade, or exchange of captured license plate data for any purpose. Under the proposed law, any data captured or improperly maintained could not be introduced by the state in any grand jury or criminal proceeding or in any civil or administrative proceeding brought by the state or any government office or official.
Passage of this bill would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for over eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, passage of this legislation would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Montana. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
“No data means no federal license plate tracking program,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU:
“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.
Passage of this legislation would represent a good first step toward putting a big dent in federal plans to continue location tracking, and expanding its facial recognition program. The less data the state makes available to the federal government, the less ability they have to track people in Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
Both H1842 and S1909 were referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation where they will need to pass before moving forward in the legislative process.
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