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

SALEM, Ore. (March 16, 2015) –  A bipartisan bill introduced in the Oregon Senate last month would put strict limitations on the use of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state, 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.

Sen. William Shields (D), Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D), Sen. Tim Knopp (R) and Rep. John Huffman (R) introduced Senate Bill 639 (SB639) on Feb. 12.The bill would limit the use of ALPRs by law enforcement to specific functions including traffic and parking enforcement, identifying a vehicle used in a crime, serving warrants and locating missing persons. The bill also sets strict limits on what kind of databases law enforcement can access to compare data captured by ALPRs.

Most importantly, SB639 requires that law enforcement agencies destroy captured data within 24 hours unless they obtain court order based on “a showing of reasonable suspicion that the data is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The court order only authorizes data retention for 30 days, and must be renewed by the court every 30 days thereafter. Once a criminal investigation is resolved, the data must be destroyed.

These provisions would prevent the state from creating and maintaining a permanent database of stored information.

A law enforcement agency can share or exchange data with other agencies, but only if the other agency complies with the retention requirements under the act. This would prevent the data from ever being collected an retained in another agencies permanent database.

Other provisions of SB639, such as requiring any agency using ALPRs to publicly display its policies, would create a robust framework of transparency around ALPR use in Oregon.

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 SB639 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Oregon. 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 SB639 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 Oregon.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it will need to pass by a majority vote before moving on to the full Senate.

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