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Massachusetts Committee Passes Bill to Limit ALPR Data, Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program

BOSTON, Mass. (April 17, 2018) – Last week, a Massachusetts joint committee passed a bill that would limit access to, and retention and sharing of, data collected by automatic license plate readers. 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.

Rep. William Strauss (D) introduced House Bill 3439 (H3439) last year and it carried over into the 2018 session. The legislation would prohibit any state or local agency from accessing, searching, reviewing, disclosing, or exchanging ALPR data in its possession, custody, or control except under the following conditions.

  1. For the purpose of collecting tolls, parking fees, or fines or surcharges related to unpaid tolls or parking fees.
  2. As necessary to install or maintain and ALPR system
  3. To respond to a reasonable belief that an individual is at imminent risk of serious physical injury, death or abduction.
  4. To comply with a search warrant or preservation request.

The proposed law would require state agencies to permanently destroy all ALPR data within 120 days of its capture unless the judge issues a warrant or a preservation request.

If an agency accesses data to deal an imminent risk, it would be required to file a report to the state attorney general’s office within 48 hours.

Last Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Transportation reported the bill favorably and referred it to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Although the bill would not limit the use of license plate readers in Massachusetts, it would significantly limit sharing and retention of ALPR data. Final passage of H3439 would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs and would make it less likely that such data would be shared with federal databases.

Rep. Strauss also sponsors a second more expansive bill moving through the House that would place similar limits on ALPR data and would also limit the use of license plate readers in the state.

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.

WHAT’S NEXT

The Committee on Ways and Means will need to pass H3439 by a majority vote before it can move forward in the legislative process.