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Virginia Legislation to Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program Heads to the Governor’s Desk

RICHMOND, Feb. 27, 2015 – Today, the Virginia General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that would put strict limitations on the use of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement in the state. Should the Governor sign into law, it would put significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program relying on states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.

Introduced by Senators Peterson and Black, Senate Bill 965 (SB965), and House Bill 1673 (HB1673) from Reps. Richard Anderson and Bob Marshall both 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.”

Both bills were passed in the Senate by a 37-0 vote and in the House, 94-2. The now move to the Governor’s desk for a signature.

The key section of the legislation 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,” these bills ban this kind of data-sharing that the DEA relies on to track millions of people whose only crime is driving. As Mike Maharrey of the Tenth Amendment Center noted, “No data means no national license plate tracking program.”

DYSTOPIAN NOW

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.”

Maharrey was extremely concerned about how these technologies could conceivably be used in conjunction with the recently-launched FBI Next Generation Identification system, which can “quickly identify people just by looking at their faces.”

“It seems like something out of a horrible, dystopian future, but it’s actually here, right now,” he said. “They monitor where we’re going and they’re building the capability to identify us anywhere and anytime. This is totally counter to what this country is supposed to be all about and it needs to be stopped.”

Passage of this Virginia legislation 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, and around the country.

Both bills now move to the Governor’s desk, where a representative of the Division of Legislative Services told us that he will have 30 days to decide.

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