A victory for individual privacy

  • 4 May 2018
  • NormanL
A victory for individual privacy

Governments love collecting data on you. Some of it is necessary -- say, in order to receive federal benefits. But other types of data collection veer into violations of privacy -- not to mention piracy. That's why a Virginia Supreme Court victory for privacy rights over the use of automatic license plate readers is such welcome news:

In reversing a lower court ruling that allowed state law enforcement agencies to extend the government’s web of surveillance on Americans by tracking them as they drive their cars, the Court held that the use of ALPRs involves the collection of personal information prohibited by Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. Mounted next to traffic lights or on police cars, ALPRs, which photograph up to 3,600 license tag numbers per minute, take a picture of every passing license tag number and store the tag number and the date, time, and location of the picture in a searchable database. The data is then shared with law enforcement, fusion centers and private companies and used to track the movements of persons in their cars.

There may be a legitimate use for some of this material among law enforcement agencies. But its continual collection and long duration storage raises substantial concerns about who, exactly, gets the data, and why government believes it needs to keep such data for so long.

Regarding the case in question:

Since 2010, the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) has used ALPRs to record the time, place, and driving direction of thousands of drivers who use Fairfax County roads daily. License plate readers capture up to 3,600 images of license tag numbers per minute and convert the images to a computer format that can be searched by tag number. This information, stored in a police database for a year, allows the police to determine the driving habits of persons as well as where they have been.

In 2014, Fairfax County resident Harrison Neal filed a complaint against FCPD asserting its collection and storage of license plate data violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act (Data Act), a law enacted because of the fear that advanced technologies would be used by the government to collect and analyze massive amounts of personal information about citizens, thereby invading their privacy and liberty. The lawsuit cited a 2013 opinion by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that ALPR data is “personal information” that the Data Act forbids the government from collecting and storing except in connection with an active criminal investigation. Despite this opinion, FCPD continued its practice of collecting and storing ALPR data in order to track the movements of vehicles and drivers.

Here's hoping the lower court accepts the state's high court correction, and does the right thing.

There are plenty of people, companies, and agencies gathering information on us. Much of it we give willingly. But information the state takes without our consent and retains without our knowledge for dubious reasons is troubling indeed.