RICHMOND, Va. (Dec. 22, 2014) – A bill prefiled in the Virginia legislature for the 2016 session would put limitations on the storage and sharing of information collected by Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state, and 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.
Del. Bob Marshall (R-13) prefiled House Bill 141 (HB141) on Dec. 21. The legislation would prohibit Virginia law enforcement agencies from collecting or maintaining personal information in a manner where such data is of unknown relevance and not intended for prompt evaluation and potential use respecting suspected criminal activity or terrorism by any person without a warrant. The bill sets strict limits on storage and sharing of data legally collected without a warrant.
Notwithstanding the restrictions set forth in this subdivision, law-enforcement agencies shall be allowed to collect information from license plate readers without a warrant; however, any information collected from a license plate reader shall be retained for no more than seven days and shall not be subject to any outside inquiries or internal usage except for the investigation of a crime or a report of a missing person.
HB141 also prohibits law enforcement agencies from obtaining ALPR information from a third party vendor if the agency would not have been permitted to collect or retain it pursuant to the law.
Passage of HB141 would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases.
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 HB141 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Virginia. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
“No data means no federal license plate tracking program,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.
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 HB141 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 Virginia.
HB141 will be referred to a committee when the regular session begins in January. It will have to pass the committee by a majority vote before moving on to the full Senate for further consideration.