Lawmakers warned plate readers could lead to 'dragnet monitoring'

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BOSTON >> Lawmakers heard testimony Monday morning on bills that would put the brakes on technology that allows police to scan thousands of license plates per minute and then use that information to fight crime.

"License plate readers are very powerful devices that enable both private companies and government agencies to collect en masse and store location information, very sensitive information showing where people in Massachusetts, both residents and visitors, have driven or parked their cars," Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said.

Crockford told the Joint Committee on Transportation that the ACLU supports three bills before the Legislature regulating the use of automatic license plate reading (ALPR) technology.

The bills (H 3102 and H 3009/S 1817) would control the use of the technology by police departments and private data companies by limiting how long the data can be stored, prohibiting police departments from giving the data to private companies, and requiring routine disclosure of how the data is being used.

Crockford said allowing departments to use ALPRs to more efficiently complete routine police work like checking for stolen cars or identifying cars with expired registrations "does not raise significant privacy concerns," and said the bills strike the right balance between privacy and public safety.

"The constitutional issue here has to do with dragnet monitoring of the entire population that is not concerned with whether someone has violated the law and the retention of that very sensitive location information, potentially indefinitely," Crockford said.

Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing for a company that makes license plate recognition technology, Vigilant Solutions, said it is "indisputable" that the technology has helped law enforcement solve "thousands" of crimes and agreed that its use should not overshadow privacy rights.

"I think we can all agree that we want law enforcement to have the most effective tools available to protect the citizens of the state," Shockley said. "At the same time, we don't want to compromise privacy on behalf of safety."

But, Shockley said, the three bills "all have very serious flaws" and argued that ALPR technology is no different than a person taking pictures of cars with their phone and logging plate numbers.

"Any of you can walk along Beacon Street later today and you can take your smartphone out and take pictures of license plates that you see in public, and you can note the time and location," he said. "That's all the ALPR system can do."

So far, 12 other states have passed legislation to regulate the use of ALPRs or the retention of data collected by ALPRs, including neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Shockley said Vigilant is willing to work with lawmakers to improve the bills, offering suggested changes to the bills.

"Some things you could consider to prevent the misuse of ALPR data include mandating audits of system access or ensuring that the systems are capable of managing complex access controls," Shockley said. "These are good controls and these things prevent misuse while also ensuring that the ALPR data is there to investigate major crimes."


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