BOSTON, Mass. (Feb. 19, 2020) – Yesterday, a Massachusetts joint legislative committee passed a bill that 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.
Rep. William Straus (D-Bristol) introduced House Bill 3141 (H3141) last year and it carried over to the 2020 session. The legislation would restrict law enforcement use of ALPRs to specific, enumerated “legitimate law enforcement purposes.” The proposed law would also put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers.
On Feb. 18, the Joint Committee on Transportation passed H3141.
Under the proposed law police would be required to permanently erase or destroy any ALPR data within its possession, custody or control within 48 hours of capturing it. Law enforcement agencies would have the option of transferring data to the state executive office of public safety and security. The executive office would be required to destroy data in its custody within 120 days. It could only retain data beyond that time under a judicially issued probable cause warrant, a production order or a preservation request issued in connection with the investigation or prosecution of a felony.
H3141 includes provisions limiting the access, search, review, disclosure, or the exchange of ALPR data from any source.
Under the proposed law, ALPR data produced, obtained or maintained in knowing violation of the statute could not be admitted, offered or cited by any governmental entity for any purpose in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding.
Passage of H3141 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 nearly a decade, 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 “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 H3141 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 Massachusetts and elsewhere.
H3141 was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.
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