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Virginia Governor Rejects Bill to Place Limits On Automatic License Plate Readers

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe refused to give final approval to two bills that would put strict limitations on the use of data collected by Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state. Because the legislation passed by overwhelming majorities, it might just delay the inevitable.

McAulliffe did not veto the bills, but instead sent amended versions back to the General Assembly. The governor’s amendments extend 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 narrowed the scope of the bill, applying it only to “license plate readers” instead of “any surveillance technology.”

The bills now goes back to the General Assembly. It can either accept or reject the governor’s amendments. If Assembly refuses to approve them, the bill goes back to McCauliffe and he can either veto or sign the original bill. According to the Washington Post, the legislature will take up the measure on April 15.

Both bills passed the assembly in almost-unanimous fashion (totals here and here), so McAuliffe could have the legislation right back on his desk in the original form.

Sen. Chip Peterson sponsored the SB965 in the Senate. He told the Washington Post the extended time for data retention “guts” the bill.

“I don’t look at it as a compromise, it’s essentially destroying the bill,” he said. “These surveillance technologies are Big Government infringing on the rights of Virginians to live their lives in peace without government scrutiny. Given the nature of these amendments, which defeat that right, I would have rather had the Governor veto the bill.”

Sponsor of the House version (HB1673), Rep. Richard Anderson, agreed, telling the Washington Post 60 days was far too long to allow law enforcement to hold on to data without a warrant, or at least a connection to a criminal investigation.

“Anything can happen in that 60 days. It creates a vast pool of data that is easily hacked, as we’ve seen elsewhere. And that’s a 60-day window for that stuff to migrate to God knows where.”

As passed by the General Assembly, the legislation applies the data retention limits to not only ALPRs, but any surveillance technology, including police body cameras, or future technology that law enforcement might develop and deploy. The governor’s amendment applies the limits strictly to ALPRs.

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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