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Virginia Bill to Restrict License Plate Tracking Back to Governor’s Desk

Today, the Virginia Assembly gave final approval to a bill that would put strict limitations on the use of data collected by Automated License Place Readers (ALPRs) and help block a nationwide license plate tracking program operated by the federal government.

House Bill 1673 (HB1673) would prohibit the retention of data collected by ALPRs for more than seven days and ban that data from “outside inquiries or internal usage, except in the investigation of a crime or missing persons report.”

The bill previously passed in the Senate by a 37-0 vote and cleared the House, 94-2, but Gov. Terry McAulliffe refused to give final approval. The governor did not veto the bill, but instead sent an amended version back to the General Assembly. The governor’s amendments extended the amount of time law enforcement agencies can store data collected by ALPRs from seven to 60 days without a warrant or a connection to an ongoing investigation. The governor also wanted to narrow the scope of the bill, applying it only to “license plate readers” instead of “any surveillance technology.”

The Assembly rejected most of the governor’s recommended amendments, sending it back to his desk with just a few changes. Rejections included McAuliffe’s extension of the amount of time data can be stored without a warrant, keeping it at seven days instead of 60. The legislature approved some technical amendments to the bill, applying the restrictions only to “license plate readers” instead of “any surveillance technology.” The definition of license plate readers remained the same, but was moved to a different part of the bill.

McAuliffe will now have the opportunity to accept the new version of this bill, or veto it. He has until one month from the last day of the session, or the bill becomes law without his signature.

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 Virginia. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist. That fact makes limiting the amount of time state agencies can store data extremely important.

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.

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