BOSTON, Mass. (March 26, 2018) – Last week, a Massachusetts House committee passed a bill 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.
Rep. William Strauss (D) introduced House Bill 1902 (H1902) last year and it carried over into the 2018 session. The legislation would allow the use of ALPRs only for “legitimate law enforcement purposes,” collecting tolls and assessing parking fees. The law defines “legitimate law enforcement purposes” as “detection or investigation of a crime, traffic violation or parking violation; operation of AMBER alerts; or searches for missing or endangered persons.”
On Thursday, the Joint Transportation Committee approved H1902 and sent it to the House for further consideration.
The bill would put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers. Police would be required to submit any collected data to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security within 48 hours or destroy it. The proposed law would allow the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to retain ALPR data for 120 days. After that time it must be destroyed, H1902 would allow the executive office to retain information longer only with a warrant or preservation request.
The proposed law would limit access and sharing of stored data. Any data obtained or shared in violation of the law would be inadmissible in court.
“Notwithstanding any general or special law or regulation to the contrary, ALPR data produced, obtained or maintained in knowing violation of this chapter shall not be admitted, offered or cited by any governmental entity for any purpose in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding.”
Final passage of H1902 would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it less likely that such data would end up in federal databases.
A similar bill (S2299) is moving through the Senate.
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.
H1902 now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.