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Missouri Bill Would Ban Location Tracking and Surveillance by License Plate Readers

A bill introduced in the Missouri Senate would ban local, state and federal agencies from using automated license plate reader systems (ALPR) to “collect captured motor vehicle data,” and would have a major impact on federal efforts to collect information on Americans.

Introduced by Sen. Robert Schaaf, SB196 declares “no government entity shall install or utilize an automated license plate reader system or an automated traffic enforcement system to enforce red-light or speed limit violations or collect captured motor vehicle data.”

Captured motor vehicle data includes GPS coordinates, date and time, photographically or digitally recorded still or video images, license plate numbers and “any other data captured or derived from an automatic license plate reader system or automated traffic enforcement system.”

Law enforcement agencies can use license plate readers to compare scanned plates against “hit lists” of vehicles. These lists might include vehicles belonging to people wanted on warrants and vehicles connected with crimes or amber alerts. But the systems don’t just store information about vehicles on the lists. The store information on each and every vehicle. As a result, law enforcement agencies end up with the ability to use ALPR systems to track the movements of innocent people, and this represents a dangerous violation of privacy. The ACLU released a report “You Are Being Tracked” and says license plate readers have become “a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance.”

These systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen — not just the data of vehicles that generate hits. All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of motorists’ location information are being created. All too frequently, these data are retained permanently and shared widely with few or no restrictions on how they can be used.

SB196 would make it impossible for law enforcement to track innocent people, and the bill’s prohibition applies to not only state and local, but also federal agencies. Additionally, the legislation deals with data collected prior to passage of the bill, requiring its destruction within 30 days unless pursuant to a warrant.  It also prohibits the state from sharing any legally preserved data with the feds.

While state and local agencies generally operate ALPR systems, the federal government has a huge role in making them possible. In fact, a great deal of the funding for license plate reader technology flows out of Washington D.C.

The ACLU obtained numerous documents revealing how local and state agencies build license plate reader systems using federal grant money.  According to an ACLU report, “The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that, over the past five years, the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.”

Federal money always comes with strings. In return for the grants, states do the legwork to further the federal government’s spy agenda.

Think about it. Why do the feds spend so much money funding license plate reader systems? Because they can tap into that information for their own purposes.

By funding and encouraging local agencies to implement these systems, the feds create a network of across the country providing them an enormous database of information that they can access and utilize. This represents a massive pool of information about motorists gathered, analyzed and stored with no warrant, probable cause or even the hint of suspicion that they did anything illegal.

Through fusion centers, state and local law enforcement share information back and forth with various federal departments under the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).  ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence, an umbrella covering 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. State and local law enforcement share data up the chain with the feds.

The federal government also uses ALPR systems and shares information at the national level. But we still know little about how exactly the feds utilize the technology. The ACLU attempted to get information on federal use of license plate readers through freedom of information act requests, but got little response. The ACLU has filed lawsuits in an attempt to get federal agencies to respond. This makes the prohibition against federal agencies from using ALCR systems in Missouri an important provision.

By stopping information gathering at the local level, it thwarts the federal push to collect reams of data on innocent Americans. When the data doesn’t exist, state and local authorities have nothing to share with the feds.  Bills such as SB196 effectively end one practical effect of federal spying.

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