COLUMBIA, S.C. (Dec. 29, 2020) – A bill prefiled in the South Carolina House would limit the storage and sharing of information collected by Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) in the state. The proposed 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. Todd Rutherford (R-Richland) filed House Bill 3137 (H3137) on Dec. 18. The legislation would restrict the use of ALPRs to specific government functions and places strict limits on the storage and sharing of any data collected by such systems.
Under the proposed laws, ALPRs could only be used by law enforcement for “the comparison of captured license plate data with data held by the Department of Motor Vehicles, SLED, the Department of Public Safety, the National Crime Information Center, a database created by law enforcement for the purposes of an ongoing investigation.” ALPRs would also be allowed for parking enforcement, controlling access to secure areas, and commercial vehicle (truck) enforcement.
The proposed law’s strength lies in its strict limits on data retention and sharing. It prohibits the use or sharing of data captured by ALPRs for any reason other than the specified purposes and requires deletion of all information within 90 days unless it is part of an ongoing investigation. Data used in an investigation must be destroyed “at the conclusion of either an investigation that does not result in any criminal charges being filed; or any criminal action undertaken in the matter involving the captured license plate data.” Other than information that “indicates evidence of an offense,” a governmental entity authorized to use an ALPR “shall not sell, trade, or exchange captured plate data for any purpose.”
Passage of H3137 would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and makes it less likely that such data will 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 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.
Private companies contribute to the proliferation of ALPR databases. In late 2019, Rekor Systems announced that they had launched the Rekor Public Safety Network (RPSN) which gives law enforcement real-time access to license plates.
“Any state or local law enforcement agency participating in the RPSN will be able to access real-time data from any part of the network at no cost. The Company is initially launching the network by aggregating vehicle data from customers in over 30 states. With thousands of automatic license plate reading cameras currently in service that capture approximately 150 million plate reads per month, the network is expected to be live by the first quarter of 2020.”
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 H3137 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.
H3137 will be officially introduced when the South Carolina legislature convenes for its 2021 session on Jan 12. It will be referred to the House Committee on Education and Public Works where it will have to pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.
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