OLYMPIA, Wash. (Feb. 4, 2019) – Last week, a Washington state Senate Committe passed a bill that would place stringent restrictions on the use of automatic license plate reader technologies (ALPRs) by state law enforcement agencies. Passage into law would also 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.
A coalition of five Democrats introduced Senate Bill 5529 (SB5529) on Jan. 23. Under the proposed law, any image or data generated by an automated license plate recognition system could not be used for any purpose other than comparison to license plate numbers on a watch list. Police would be prohibited from using any such data to identify the owner or driver of a vehicle; from sharing the information with any other agency, entity, or person; from using the data for any other purpose; and from retaining the data for more than 12 hours.
SB5529 would also limit license plate watch lists to specific criteria. Only vehicles reported stolen, vehicles listed on an Amber Alert, vehicles associated with people with outstanding felony warrants, and individuals for whom there is probable cause to believe they have committed a felony, but exigent circumstances prevent the immediate procurement of a warrant for up to 48 hours.
The legislation also places restrictions on the use of ALPRs for parking enforcement, monitoring secure areas and commercial vehicle enforcement, including prohibitions on data retention and sharing.
Any data or information obtained in violation of the act would be inadmissible in both civil and criminal court.
On Jan. 28, the Senate Transportation Committee approved SB5529 without recommendation.
A companion bill (HB1663) has been introduced in the House.
Provisions in this legislation prohibiting the storage and sharing of ALPR data would make it highly improbable that such information would end up in the multitude of federal databases now being stored and disseminated through federal fusion centers.
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 vehicles through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, 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 “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.
Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).
Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.
Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.
With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, laws banning or even restricting ALPR use are essential. As more states pass such laws, the end result becomes more clear. No data equals no federal license plate tracking program.
Passage of SB5529 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 Washington, and elsewhere.
SB5529 was referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee where it will need to pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.