OLYMPIA, Wash. (Feb. 28, 2017) – A Washington state bill that would limit the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), and restrict the retention and sharing of collected data, passed an important House committee last week. If given final approval, the bill would not only protect privacy in Washington state, but would also hinder some aspects of the federal surveillance state.

A bipartisan coalition of nine representatives sponsor House Bill 1909 (HB1909). The legislation limits law enforcement use of ALPRs to locating vehicles on a watch list. It specifically limits the use and retention of data collected by the systems.

Except as explicitly set forth in this  section,  any  image  or  data  generated  by  such  an  automated license  plate  recognition  system  must  not  be  used  for  any  purpose other than comparison to license plate numbers on the watch list. If the image or data does not match a license plate number on the watch list, the image or data must not be: Used to identify the owner or driver of a vehicle; shared with any other agency, entity, or person; used for any other purpose; or retained for more than twelve hours.

HB1909 allows for other uses of ALPRs, including toll collection, parking enforcement, providing real-time traffic information or in traffic studies, and controlling access into secure areas. In all of these situation, the law would bar the retention of data and using it to identify specific individuals.

Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in any civil or criminal case in any state court.

The House Transportation Committee passed HB1909 by a 17-4 vote with one representative not making a recommendation on passage.

Passage of this legislation would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs and ensure location information of drivers in Washington state don’t end up in federal databases.


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 nearly 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 HB1909 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Washington state. 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 HB1909 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 Washington state.


HB1909 was referred to the Rules Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

Mike Maharrey

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