A handful of state senators clustered around a police car Thursday, peering at three camera-like fixtures mounted to the vehicle’s exterior. The object of their attention was an automated license plate reader (ALPR), which scans and downloads license plate numbers, depositing them in a data bank that allows law enforcement officers to track criminals.
Back in the chamber the next day, the senators unanimously passed S.18, a bill that sets limits on how long law enforcement can hold onto the data collected by ALPRs. They settled on a digital shelf life of 18 months. The House will now look at the bill and consider it’s own limits and privacy concerns.
The body also approved an amendment that allows law enforcement to extend that deadline 90 days, if they demonstrate that the information is relevant to an investigation. Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, a former police officer, proposed that amendment.
That limit is a far cry from the one originally put forth in the bill, introduced by Sens. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, Richard Sears, D-Bennington, Sally Fox, D-Chittenden, and Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden.
The Transportation Committee tinkered with the bill extensively before sending it to the Senate floor. Though the sum of the digits stayed the same, the allowable lifespan for the data was extended from 180 days to 18 months.
The limit lawmakers settled upon falls much closer to the preference of law enforcement than that of civil liberties advocates.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn wants to retain the data for at least two years. The ACLU wants it deleted after 30 days. Currently, imaging data is kept on hand for four years.
The propagation of license plate readers only began a few years ago, enabled by a Homeland Security grant from the federal government. There are at least 46 of them reported in use in Vermont.
The techonology is imperfect— picket fences are sometimes mistaken for the digits 1-1-1-1-1-1 — but it has become an “irresistible tool” for law enforcement, Ashe said. It’s also spurred serious concerns about the privacy rights of innocent citizens.
According to Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU in Vermont, “When you retain data, what you essentially create is a tracking system, and usually when a system has the technological capability to do something, someone will eventually want to use it in that way.”
Flynn and Gilbert make their cases using polar opposite anecdotes. Flynn suggested that police could solve a spree of armed robberies they might not otherwise be able to crack by using ALPRs to identify a license plate that’s been, for instance, at nine of the 10 sites.
Gilbert counters: “It’s the data that you keep on people who you have no suspicion of committing a crime that becomes problematic.”
“They are going to know where you took your leaf-peeping trip last year, and we see no reason why your information should be retained when it’s an innocent trip to the countryside,” he said.
Flynn said he wasn’t disappointed that the Senate shaved six months off his suggestion. “I believe that’s a workable time period,” Flynn said.
Ashe said he knew from the start that 180 days was not the “magic amount of time,” so he wasn’t disheartened when the Transportation Committee went with a more lenient standard. He originally chose 180 days because it was the minimum amount of time that would still have allowed an appeals process to take its full course, such as someone contesting a civic violation.
S.18 also requires the Department of Public Safety to report back to the Legislature on the number of readers in the state, the number of license plates they scan, and the total amount of data that accumulates in the system after 18 months, among other information.
By garnering this information, Ashe said S.18 “gives all of us an opportunity to look and say: Are these being used properly? Are we comfortable that this information is being stored in a database? Do we believe it’s only being accessed for the correct reasons? Is it invading people’s privacy?”
Ashe said he expects the Legislature, down the road, will further whittle down the retention time for this data.
“Most legislators remain completely unaware that dozens of law enforcement agencies are using these tools today. While there are some who believe they shouldn’t retain the data at all, and frankly my own heart-of-hearts is in that camp, we’ve come a long way in establishing legislative oversight in the use of these tools.”
Gilbert is also hoping the data collected as part of S.18 will serve as a wake-up call, alerting lawmakers to the scope of the problem.
“One thing people don’t realize is how many license plate images we are talking about being collected. I’m doing some quick math. Readers can scan up to 2,000 plates an hour. If each reader is used for an eight-hour shift, it will take 16,000 images. With 30 readers operating around the state, 480,000 images could be taken in an eight- hour shift. We are talking about a tremendous amount of information. Millions and millions of images.”