RICHMOND, Feb. 17, 2015 – A bill passed by the Virginia House today would put strict limitations on the use of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state, putting 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. The vote was 95-4.
Introduced by Senators Peterson and Black, Senate Bill 965 (SB965) reads, in part:
any information collected from a license plate reader shall only be retained for 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.
The key section of the bill is the prohibition on data from ALPRs being used by “outside inquiries.”
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has been tracking the location of millions of cars for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
Most of these tracking systems are operated by state and local law enforcement agencies, but are paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database and is able to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
By prohibiting “outside inquiries,” SB965 bans this kind of data-sharing that the DEA relies on to track millions of people whose only crime is driving.
The Senate passed the bill by a 38-0 vote earlier this month, but in committee on the House side, a technical amendment was added to further strengthen the bill, adding an express requirement for a warrant to use ALPRs in the state:
Unless a criminal or administrative warrant has been issued, law-enforcement and regulatory agencies shall not use license plate readers to collect or maintain personal information in a manner where such data is of unknown relevance and is not intended for prompt evaluation and potential use respecting suspected criminal activity or terrorism by any person.
These ALPRs are generally configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, it has been revealed that the DEA is also capturing 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.”
Passage of SB965 into law is a good first step that will make a big dent in federal plans to continue location tracking, and expanding their facial recognition program. The less data the state makes available to the federal government, the less they’re able to track people in Virginia.
The bill now moves back to the state Senate, where that chamber will have an opportunity to approve or reject the stronger, amended version from the House.