Massachusetts Bill Would Limit ALPR Use, Help Block National License Plate Tracking Program

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A bill introduced in the Massachusetts House would put strict limitations on the use of automated license plate reader systems (ALPRs) by the state. 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 six Democrats introduced House Bill 3036 (H3036) on Jan. 22. The legislation would limit law enforcement use of ALPRs to specific, enumerated law enforcement functions. The proposed law would also put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers.

Government agencies would have to delete any ALPR data within 14 days unless they get a warrant authorizing retention. The legislation prohibits the sale, trade, or exchange of captured license plate data for any purpose. Under the proposed law, any data captured or improperly maintained could not be introduced by the state in any grand jury or criminal proceeding or in any civil or administrative proceeding brought by the state or any government office or official.

Passage of this bill would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases 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 H3036 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 that states make available to the federal government, the less ability it has to track people in Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

WHAT’S NEXT

H3036 was referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

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