Bill would ban sale of license-plate reader data

Those who collect data with automatic license-plate readers would be prohibited from selling or sharing it except among law enforcement agencies, under a bill introduced Friday by a Bay Area state Senator.

“Automatic license plate reader technology is a useful tool for law enforcement,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said in a news release. “But use of this technology must be balanced with personal privacy.”

Used mainly by law enforcement agencies, automatic license plate reader technology uses high-speed cameras – often mounted on police cars, but sometimes mounted at fixed points as well – along with software and criminal databases to rapidly check and track the license plates of millions of Californians. It’s also often used by private, non-law enforcement entities, such as parking and repossession companies.

But as use of this technology has increased, so has the concern of civil libertarians; current law doesn’t require LPR operators to keep the data private.

Under SB 893, data that’s less than five years old could be sold or provided only to law enforcement; data that’s more than five years old would be available to law enforcement only with a court order. Violators would be subject to civil lawsuits, with anyone affected by a privacy breach entitled to recover damages including costs and attorney’s fees.

license plate readersHill notes license-plate readers are an important law-enforcement tool: The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, in its first 30 days of using the technology, identified and located 495 stolen vehicles, five carjacked vehicles, and 19 other vehicles that were involved in felonies. These identifications led to 45 arrests, including some people suspected of bank robbery and home invasion.

“Law enforcement will still be able to continue to use LPR technology to catch criminals,” Hill said. “But Californians will have peace of mind that their personal information is safeguarded.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    This bill demonstrates once again that there are too many legislators with nothing really to do and they meet too frequently for too long.

  • RRSenileColumnist

    What’s the fuss? Dudes who like vanity plates chose to be conspicuous; do they feel violated?

  • johnmcnary1

    You’re joking, right? The cops come up with a privacy-invading technology and start selling the data, and you call that a waste of time. Sen. Hill is doing the people a real service here.

  • Michael Davis

    What happened to probable cause? The police are suppose to have probable cause in order to stop a motorist. It is illegal for the police to drive down the street and run checks on license plates indiscriminately. The next thing will be search technology that is exempt from search warrants. Unfortunately most people neither understand nor appreciate the law.

  • South Bay Members’ Council Nra

    The bill proposed may not go far enough.

    Look at how data has been abused over the past year if not properly protected.

    Just recently, Target customers had their data breached and now millions of people are exposed to identify theft.

    The IRS knew which 501c applications were conservative and which ones were liberal. And they abused that information to prevent the conservative groups from getting their tax status.

    A New York newspaper demanded the names of lawful gun owners under the Freedom Of Information Act and openly published their names on the newspaper website in an attempt to shame them and to scare away any prospective new gun owners.

    Not enough to think about?

    How about a private group scanning the parking at a gay and lesbian event and then publishing that data on a website?

    What if you were traveling and you checked into a motel in a small town. While you slept, your plates were scanned into a database. What you did not know was that motel was notoriously known to the locals and law enforcement as the place that prostitutes operated in. How would that look?

    What if you decide to attend an out of state gun show with a friend and they scanned every car coming in to the parking lot. You are law abiding so you do not buy anything that would be illegal for you to take home. But as you return home, you are stopped at a checkpoint and they single out your car for a search. Think that does not happen? Think again. That operation already exists in California when residents return from a Nevada gun show.