ANNAPOLIS, Md. (May 22, 2024) – Last week, Maryland Governor Wes Moore signed a bill into law expanding current restrictions on the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), and placing limits on the sharing and selling of collected data.

Del. Scott Phillps and four cosponsors introduced House Bill 1081 (HB1081) on Feb. 7. Current Maryland law already puts limits on the use of ALPRs. Law enforcement agencies can only use captured ALPR data for “the investigation, detection, or analysis of a crime or a violation of the Maryland vehicle laws or the operation of terrorist or missing or endangered person searches or alerts.” HB1081 takes another step by limiting the sharing of captured ALPR data.

The new law expands the definition of historical ALPR data to include “any data collected by an automatic license plate reader system and stored through cloud computing.” This includes data collected and stored by third-party vendors.

The bill prohibits Maryland law enforcement agencies and vendors contracted by these agencies from selling historical ALPR data. The language specifically includes “the sale of subscriptions or licenses to access data.” In effect, this will prohibit third-party vendors operating ALPRs in Maryland from allowing subscribers to their services to access Maryland ALPR data.

Additionally, HB1081 bars vendors contracted by Maryland law enforcement agencies from accessing Maryland ALPR data unless access is “expressly requested and authorized by the law enforcement agency.”

The law also prohibits a Maryland law enforcement agency or a vendor contracted by a Maryland law enforcement agency from uploading data to any other law enforcement agency or entity “regardless of whether the agency or entity is located inside or outside the state.”

Law enforcement agencies around the country are increasingly using private companies such as Flock Safety to run ALPR systems for them. Not only does the contracting agency have access to data collected by these companies, but every law enforcement agency with a subscription to the service can access data from every other agency contracted with the company. In effect, these private companies create massive databases of ALPR data accessible by federal and state police departments across the country. The enactment of HB1081 specifically limits the sharing of and access to data collected by these private companies.

The Senate passed HB1081 by a 47-0 vote. The House passed the measure 119-17. With Gov. Moore’s signature, the law will go into effect Oct. 1.

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). In 2019 alone, 82 agencies in California collected more than 1 billion license plate scans using ALPRs. Yet according to EFF, 99.9 percent of this surveillance data was not actively related to an investigation when it was collected.

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 was 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.”

ALPR systems run by Flock Saftey have also proliferated across the U.S. If there are Flock cameras in your town, every law enforcement agency in the country that subscribes to the Flock system can tap into your local data.

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.

The enactment of HB1081 takes a 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 Maryland and elsewhere.

Mike Maharrey

The 10th Amendment

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