When we filed legislation earlier this year to regulate automatic license plate readers, we did so out of concern that this powerful, increasingly common police technology – without rules to govern its use – could be abused. Now, the concern is no longer theoretical.
Thanks to the Globe’s recent exposé, we know that the Boston Police Department has disregarded information about the very kind of violations the scanners are supposed to be used for, and ignored its own policies by keeping huge quantities of data about where innocent motorists have been driving — long past when that data should have been thrown out. What the Globe revealed is so bad that the BPD shut the program down itself — but our state legislature must ensure this never happens again.
The problem with license plate readers is not what they are designed to do. These sophisticated scanners, mounted in police cruisers or fixed locations, read hundreds of license plates per minute and compare them against a “hot list” of vehicles wanted for one violation or another: stolen cars, cars associated with outstanding warrants or missing children, even expired registrations. Used for such legitimate purposes, this technology is a beneficial tool. It helps police do their work efficiently, keeps the streets safe, and saves money.
The problem is that the scanners read every license plate and store information about every car’s precise location at precise times — regardless of whether that car is associated with any violation – and they can keep that data forever. In a short time, scanners can create a pretty good map of the places you go, including places you visit that are definitely not the government’s business, like your church, a political rally, or an alcohol or drug recovery program. They can become the equivalent of a police tail on every motorist on the road.
As lawmakers, it’s our job to set appropriate limits on our government’s police powers. It’s the job of the state legislature to protect the privacy rights of our constituents and prevent useful law enforcement tools from being used for unjustified surveillance of innocent people.
We filed the License Plate Privacy Act to set basic rules for the use of this presently unregulated technology. License plate scanners should only be used for legitimate, real-time law enforcement purposes. Read the license plate, identify any violation, and dump the data about innocent drivers. Essentially, “check it, then chuck it.” Of course, if a serious crime just occurred where a license plate reader was scanning plates, the legislation allows police to hold onto the data in order to conduct an investigation. But it draws reasonable, necessary limits. We should take action here in Massachusetts to forestall the sort of overreach we’ve seen at the NSA — collecting information about everybody and holding onto it for an undefined future purpose, just because we can.
Massachusetts license plates celebrate “the Spirit of America.” That’s the spirit of freedom — a freedom founded on government subject to checks and balances. It’s time to apply the proud meaning of those words to the license plates they are printed on.
Cynthia Stone Creem is a state senator from Newton. Jonathan Hecht is a state representative from Watertown.