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Montana House Passes Bill to Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program

HELENA Mont. (Mar. 10, 2015) –  Today, the Montana House passed a bill that would put restrictions on automated license plate reader systems (ALPR) by the state and have a major impact on federal efforts to tap in to state and local systems to track millions of people. The vote was 56-44.

Introduced by State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-45), House Bill 344 (HB344) declares that except under limited non-surveillance activities or with a warrant “an agency or employee of the state or any subdivision of the state may not use, either directly or indirectly, a license plate scanner on any public highway.”

These systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has been tracking the location of millions of cars for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy. The secret domestic intelligence-gathering program “scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists.”

Most of these tracking systems are operated by state and local law enforcement agencies, but are paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database and is able to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself. In those few situations where ALPRs are operated by federal agencies, they’re generally done so with express approval of the legislature, and operational assistance from state or local law enforcement.

Most-importantly, the bill stipulates that data collected by ALPRs is not a public record. It limits access to data to state employees “only for the purpose of providing customer service or for statistical, administrative, or legal activities necessary to perform the employee’s duties.” Data may only be retained “for the time minimally necessary, but no more than 30 days.”

By limiting the amount of time data can be stored, and limiting access to and sharing of the data, HB344 would help block a federal program tapping into such information.

“No ALPR data means no license plate tracking program,” said Mike Maharrey of the OffNow Project. “More importantly, this limits government power and advances liberty on both the state and national level.”

The ALPRs also known to capture photographs of vehicle occupants. An internal DEA memo obtained by the ACLU “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.’”

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.

HB344 would allow ALPRs to be used for some situations, such as “to collect data for city planning” as long as “the anonymity of the vehicle, the vehicle owner, the driver of the vehicle, and any passengers in the vehicle” is ensured. Data collected for city planning could not be used to “investigate or prosecute an individual or as evidence in court.” It also allows ALPRs for use at weigh stations and for parking enforcement.

The bill now moves to the state Senate for further consideration.

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