BOSTON, Mass. (Feb. 1, 2018) – Last week, a Massachusetts committee held a hearing on three bills that would put strict limitations on the use of automated license plate reader systems (ALPRs) by the state. Passage into 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.
A bipartisan coalition of 13 representatives introduced House Bill 1842 (H1842) last year. A Senate companion (S1909) was introduced at the same time. Both bills carried over to the 2018 session. The legislation would limit law enforcement use of ALPRs to specific, enumerated law enforcement functions.
The bills also put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers. Government agencies would have to delete any ALPR data within 14 days. The legislation prohibits the sale, trade, or exchange of captured license plate data for any purpose. Under the proposed law, any data captured or improperly maintained could not be introduced by the state in any grand jury or criminal proceeding or in any civil or administrative proceeding brought by the state or any government office or official.
Rep. William Strauss (D) introduced House Bill 1902 (H1902) last year as well. The legislation would allow the use of ALPRs only for “legitimate law enforcement purposes,” collecting tolls and assessing parking fees. H1902 would allow the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to retain ALPR data for 120 days. After that time it must be destroyed, The proposed law would allow the executive office to retain information longer with a warrant or preservation request. The proposed law would limit access and sharing of stored data.
On Jan 24, the Joint Committee on Transportation held a hearing on all three bills. This is an important step in the Massachusetts legislative process.
Passage of any of these bills would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
The ACLU estimates that less than 0.2 percent of plate scans are linked to criminal activity or vehicle registration issues.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for over eight years, 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 simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, passage of this legislation would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Massachusetts. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
“No data means no federal license plate tracking program,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU:
“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program in 2016, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.
Passage of this legislation 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 the state makes available to the federal government, the less ability they have to track people in Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
The Joint Transportation Committee will next need to pass one of these bills, or combine elements of each into a new measure. It will then need to pass by a majority vote before moving to the House and Senate.