SACRAMENTO, Calif. (March 25, 2021) – On Tuesday, a California Senate committee passed a bill that would further 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.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 210 (SB210) on Jan. 12. Under current law, police can only retain ALPR data for 60 days unless it is being used as evidence or for the investigation of felonies. Passage of this legislation would restrict ALPR data retention even further. The current law limits the sharing of ALPR data to specified purposes and requires agencies to create a publicly available usage policy. SB210 would include in those usage and privacy policies a requirement that ALPR data that does not match a hotlist be destroyed within 24 hours.
California put some limits on ALPR data collection and sharing in 2015, but without transparency, it remains unclear if law enforcement is following the regulations. In fact, many suspect they aren’t. According to a report in The Guardian, “A 2019 audit of police forces showed they were, in many cases, collecting excessive amounts of information and sharing them with hundreds of other agencies, often without clear reasoning.”
Wiener told The Guardian there are “basically no constraints” on how ALPR data is collected and used in California.
“We were seeing that ALPR use in California was quickly becoming the wild west. It is violating people’s privacy, and we do not need a surveillance state in this country.”
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 SB210 would take another 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 California and elsewhere.
SB210 will now move to the Senate Appropriations Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.
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