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Massachusetts Senate Committee Passes Bill to Restrict ALPR Use; Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program

BOSTON, Mass. (May 4, 2016) – A Massachusetts Senate committee has passed a bill that would put limitations on the storage and sharing of information collected by law enforcement agencies using Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) in the state, and 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.

The Joint Committee on Transportation created Senate Bill 2273 (S.2273) after considering several bills that would limit the use of ALPRs. The legislation would restrict the use of ALPRs to specific law enforcement functions, and place strict limits on the storage and sharing of any data collected by such systems.

On May 2, the Senate Committee on Transportation reported the bill favorably and referred it to the Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

S.2273 would require law enforcement agencies to either completely destroy data gathered by an ALPR within 48 hours. A law enforcement agency could transfer information to the executive office of public safety and security, but would still be required to erase the data from its system. The executive office would maintain the only database in the state. It would be required to destroy all data within 120 days. Sharing of ALPR information or retention of data beyond 120 days would require a warrant, a preservation order or a production order. The legislation includes strict criteria for issues such orders.

Any ALPR data shared or retained in violation of the law would be inadmissible for any purpose in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding.

Passage of S.2273 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

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 nearly 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 S.2273 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 newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is 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 last fall, 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 S.2273 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.