RALEIGH, N.C. (April 17, 2015) – A bipartisan bill introduced in the North Carolina House this week would put strict limitations on the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state, and would 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. Brian Turner (D- Buncombe), along with eight cosponsors, introduced House Bill 829 (H829) on April 14. The legislation would limit the use of ALPRs to specific purposes, and would place strict limits on the storage and sharing of legally collected data.
If passed, state and local law enforcement agencies could only use data collected from ALPRs for comparison with databases relating to outstanding parking or traffic violations, violations of vehicle registration requirements, violations of inspection requirements, stolen vehicles, the search for persons with outstanding warrants or to find missing persons.
H829 establishes strict criteria for data storage and sharing. It prohibits sharing of information collected by an ALPR without a preservation order, disclosure order, state issued warrant or federally issued warrant. The bill requires destruction of all data not preserved under one of these four mechanisms within 60 days. This requirement would prevent bulk ALPR data collected in North Carolina from migrating to permanent databases.
The bill would also require agencies using ALPRs to establish written policies outlining the procedures it will implement to comply with the law, and sets strict reporting requirements.
Any data or information captured in violation of the law would not be admissible as evidence in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding.
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 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 H829 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in North Carolina. 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.
Passage of H829 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 North Carolina.
H829 was referred to the House Committee on Transportation where it will have to pass by a majority vote before continuing through the legislative process.