Tuesday, March 20, 2012

California Legislation to Address Police Tracking/Storing License Plate Info and Driver Locations

California privacy stalwart - State Senator Joe Simitian - is back again with another critically important bill. SB 1330 will address what has become one of the fastest-growing trends in law enforcement  - including private industry: monitoring and compiling license-plate records (license plate recognition technology, or LPR) on both innocent and criminal drivers which that can then be searched by police.

It goes without saying that this locational tracking of potentially every driver on the road is a threat to privacy. To date, the courts have only begun to address whether investigators can secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to cars without a warrant (the Supreme just ruled they can't).

This ruling hasn't however deterred police from across the country - and companies like Vigilant Video - from utilizing these high-tech scanners on the exterior of their cars to take a picture of every passing license plate and automatically compare them to databases of outstanding warrants, stolen cars and wanted bank robbers.

As alluded to, these scanners are employed by a variety of law enforcement agencies, asset recovery companies and financial institutions, among other organizations. While they are admittedly a valuable resource for law enforcement, they are also valuable to private entities wishing to acquire or sell data about people’s movements and habits. 

In fact, we have learned that some private entities utilize “scout cars” whose sole purpose is to acquire LPR data; such entities possess millions of LPR data points, and claim to scan 40 percent of vehicles in the country on an annual basis.

This volume of LPR data can provide a roadmap to an individual’s personal life including his or her movements, activities, medical conditions, friendships, religious practices, vocation, political beliefs, etc. This poses a serious risk to Californians’ constitutional right to privacy, especially since LPR data is acquired without an individual’s knowledge or consent.

Senator Simitian's bill offers a critical safeguard to Californians’ constitutional right to privacy by modeling itself on existing state law governing 1) the use of LPR scanners and data by the California Highway Patrol, and 2) the disclosure of information acquired by transportation agencies through electronic toll collection systems (another bill Senator Simitian recently authored).  Most importantly, the law would limit the time enforcement agencies in California can retain such data captured by these license-plate scanners to 60 days, except when the information is being used in felony investigations.

As reported in California Watch:

Simitian said in an interview that there’s a critical distinction between consumers who voluntarily choose to turn over private information to Internet companies like Facebook and technologies that quietly collect information on drivers.

He helped hammer out the guidelines in place for the highway patrol and said balancing privacy protections enshrined in the state’s constitution with the tools police need to improve public safety is part of the legislative process. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” Simitian said.

Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital and privacy rights group based in San Francisco, said it’s “a good attempt at beginning to address the issue.” The foundation so far plans to support the legislation, Tien said.

The bill also would prohibit police from turning the data over to entities that are not engaged in law enforcement, such as private companies.

Simitian’s proposal comes after California Watch reported in January that a Livermore-based company called Vigilant Video had amassed more than a half-billion bits of information on drivers from license-plate scanners. The data come both from police who agree to turn it over for nationwide searches and auto-repossession companies that help banks track down debtors who are delinquent on their car payments.

A company sales manager previously told California Watch that about 1,200 new law enforcement users are signed up every month to search the database, known as the National Vehicle Location Service. While using the devices to nab wanted suspects in real time has a clear value for police, storing historical data from the units is equally alluring to police who are aware of its powerful intelligence value.

Simitian’s bill also would restrict companies like Vigilant, limiting the amount of time data can be held to 60 days, barring them from selling it or giving the data to anyone who is not a law enforcement officer, and making data available to police only when a search warrant has established probable cause. Vigilant says only approved law enforcement officials can sign up to search the National Vehicle Location Service. 

Senator Simitian's legislation will be AGGRESSIVELY supported by a broad coalition of privacy and consumer advocates as it strikes a balance between law enforcement’s legitimate use of LPR scanners for public safety purposes, and Californians’ right to privacy.

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