FRANKFORT, Ky. (March 9, 2023) – Last week, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill that would place some restrictions on the retention and sharing of automatic license plate reader (ALPR) data in the state. The proposed law would also place 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. Jimmy Higdon (R) introduced Senate Bill 129 (SB129) on Feb. 14. Under the proposed law, “entities,” including Kentucky law enforcement agencies, local government agencies, schools, HOAs, and private companies legally using ALPRs “for the sole purpose of protecting public safety, conducting criminal investigations, or ensuring compliance with local, state, or federal laws” could only retain collected data for 90 days.
Law enforcement agencies could legally retain ALPR data beyond the 90-day limit if the information was being used as evidence in a criminal prosecution or administrative investigation.
The bill would also prohibit entities from selling any recorded images or data captured by an ALPR for any purpose or making the data available “except to another law enforcement officer or agency.”
While the 90-day retention limit is relatively long, it would be an improvement from the status quo that allows state and local agencies to retain ALPR data indefinitely. But to be more effective, the timespan needs to be much shorter – at most 14 days.
The provisions on data sharing are also a small step forward, but they don’t go far enough. Allowing Kentucky law enforcement agencies to share ALPR data with other law enforcement agencies for 90 days without any restrictions would allow police to circumvent the intent of the law by simply sharing the data with federal law enforcement agencies or police departments outside the state that are not bound by the 90-day limit. That means even with the passage of SB129, records of people’s travels throughout the commonwealth could end up stored in permanent 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 SB129 would take a very small 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 Kentucky and elsewhere.
SB129 will move to the House for further consideration. Once assigned to a House committee, it will need to get a hearing and pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.
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