OLYMPIA, Wash. (Jan. 24, 2020) – Bills filed in the Washington state legislature would put strict limitations on the use of information gathered by 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 coalition of five Democrats introduced Senate Bill 5529 (SB5529) last year and it was carried over and reintroduced for the 2020 session on Jan. 13. A coalition of three Democrats introduced a companion – House Bill 2566 (HB2566) – on Jan 15. The legislation would limit law enforcement use of ALPRs to locating vehicles on a watch list. The proposed law would also place strict limitations on the use, retention and sharing of any data captured by an ALPR.
“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.”
A watch list could only contain the license plates of stolen vehicles, vehicles listed on an Amber Alert. and vehicles associated with individuals who have outstanding warrants or if there is probable cause to believe they have committed a felony.
The legislation allows for other uses of ALPRs, including toll collection, parking enforcement, providing real-time traffic information and conducting traffic studies, and controlling access into secure areas. In all of these situations, the law would bar the retention of data and the use of information to identify specific individuals.
Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in any civil or criminal case in any Washington state court.
Passage of either 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 and disseminated through federal fusion centers.
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 through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for more than a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
In 2020, the Fairview Heights Tribune provided a definitive link between local police and the DEA database when it obtained documents revealing that the city of Fairview Heights, Illinois, (Pop. 17,000) installed ALPRs and entered into an agreement to join the DEA’s National License Plate Reader Network (NLPRN). According to the report, “The agreement with the DEA allows Fairview Heights Police to both input data into the national system and retrieve data from it along with establishing the processes for the sharing and use of such information.”
This is one concrete example of how state and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems. Many ALPR systems are also paid for with federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.
Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).
Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.
Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.
With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, laws banning or even restricting ALPR use are essential. As more states pass such laws, the end result becomes more clear. No data equals no federal license plate tracking program.
Passage of SB5529 or HB2566 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 that states make available to the federal government, the less ability it has to track people in Washington and elsewhere.
SB5529 passed the Senate Committee on Transportation last year and was referred to the Senate Committee on Law and Justice where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process. HB2566 was referred to the Hosue Transportation Committee.
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