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Massachusetts Bill Would Restrict ALPRs, Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program

BOSTON (Mar. 18, 2015) Last week, a bill was introduced in the Massachusetts House that would put strict restrictions on automated license plate reader systems (ALPR), placing 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.

Introduced on March 11 by State Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown), along with over 50 bipartisan co-sponsors, House Bill 3009 (HB3009) would put rules on the use of ALPRs making it more difficult for the technology to be used to violate the privacy rights of Massachusetts residents.

State employees would have the discretion to lawfully use ALPR in a variety of ways, such as identifying stolen vehicles or investigating traffic violations, but there would be restrictions and transparency requirements mandated by HB3009 to enact substantial privacy safeguards. The bill would deny state government officials access to “ALPR data from other governmental or non-governmental entities except pursuant to a valid warrant.” They would also be disallowed from obtaining or accessing information gathered by ALPR to “sell, trade, or exchange such data for any purpose.” Most importantly, all information gathered lawfully under the bill must be destroyed within 14 days unless it is needed for an ongoing criminal investigation pursuant to a valid warrant.

IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS

By limiting the amount of time data can be stored, limiting access to information and placing restrictions on data sharing, HB3009 would help block a federal program tapping into such information.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicle. 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 HB3009 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Massachusetts. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.

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.

Bill Details

HB3009 places explicit rules on the use of ALPRs and creates stringent reporting requirements.

In order to lawfully use ALPR under HB3009, state agencies must abide by the following rules:

(a) Adopt a policy governing use of the system, including data retention and deletion, and conspicuously post the policy on the entity’s web site;

(b) Adopt a privacy policy to ensure that ALPR data is not shared in violation of this chapter or any other law and conspicuously post the privacy policy on the agency’s web site; and

(c) Report annually its automatic license plate reader practices and usage to the state authority that governs the entity, and conspicuously post the report on the entity’s web site.

Information in the annual reports issued by departments would include how many license plates were scanned, how many license plate scans were retained after being collected, if there had been any collusion with outside government or private agencies regarding ALPR, how many warrants were issued, how many warrants resulted in criminal charges, how many warrants were successfully prosecuted, and other pertinent details related to the use of ALPR in the state.

Individuals whose privacy rights are violated with ALPR by state officials are liable for civil restitution under HB3009 as well.

HB3009 is currently in the Joint Committee on Transportation. It must pass through that committee successfully before it can receive a full vote in the state House.

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