State bill would restrict data from license-plate scanners

by G.W. Schulz, California Watch

A state lawmaker representing Silicon Valley wants to rein in a cutting-edge law enforcement technology that enables police to stockpile digital personal information on motorists and build a portrait of their whereabouts.

Agencies across the nation are swiftly adopting the use of license-plate recognition devices, which are affixed to the outside of their patrol cars and scan passing vehicles. The tags are automatically compared with databases of outstanding warrants, stolen cars and more.

Each scan captures and stores an array of data, regardless of whether the driver is a wanted criminal, including the geographic location of the car along with the date and time of the scan. Privacy advocates are alarmed that the technology could allow police to paint a picture of where innocent Americans have been and when.

Police counter that license-plate scanners allow them to track down wanted criminals and stop perpetrators on the street by way of an in-car alert without having to manually search each tag. Investigators also can search where a license plate has been scanned previously and go back to see if the person is at that location.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has proposed a bill that would require local law enforcement agencies in California to retain data captured by license-plate scanners for only 60 days, except when the information is being used in felony investigations. Such rules already exist for the California Highway Patrol.

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.  

Retired police officer Steve Reed uses the scanners in his current capacity as security chief at the Arden Fair mall in Sacramento and is unsure how the bill could affect his work. A unique partnership between the mall and the Sacramento Police Department has led to the recovery of nearly 70 stolen vehicles and about 50 arrests since early 2009.

For Reed, that’s dozens of people who got their cars back and dozens more who needed to be held accountable.