RICHMOND, Va. (Jan. 29, 2021) – On Wednesday, a Virginia Senate committee passed a bill that would limit law enforcement use of automatic 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.
Sen. John Petersen (D-Fairfax) introduced Senate Bill 1198 (SB1198) on Jan. 11. The legislation would put strict limits on law enforcement use of ALPRs. Under the proposed law, Virginia police and other regulatory agencies would be prohibited from using ALPRs to collect and maintain personal information on individuals without a warrant.
Warrantless use of ALPRs would only be allowed for “prompt evaluation” for the investigation of suspected criminal activity, civil or regulatory violations, or terrorism. Law enforcement agencies could only retain ALPR data gathered without a warrant for 30 days and such data could “not be subject to any outside inquiries or internal usage except for the investigation of a crime or a report of a missing person.”
SB1198 would also prohibit any state or local police and regulatory agencies from acquiring personal information collected from a license plate from any third-party private vendor.
On Jan. 27, the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee passed SB1198 by an 8-4 vote. The Committee made two significant amendments. It raised the amount of time a law enforcement agency could retain data from seven to 30 days and it carved out an exception allowing the use of ALPRs as part of the state’s emissions inspection program.
Placing limits on the sharing and retention of ALPR data is particularly important in Virginia. In October 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court held that Virginia police can keep ALPR data indefinitely. The court ruled that retaining license plate data, including a record of the time and place where the system photographed the vehicle, does not violate state privacy laws.
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 SB1198 would take another step toward putting a 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 Virginia and elsewhere.
SB1198 will next move to the full Senate for further consideration.
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