PhotoIf you live in modern America, there's a good chance that anytime you live your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in realtime and stored in a database accessible to pretty much anybody willing to pay for it.

This has arguably been the case ever since digital (as opposed to film-dependent) cameras and video recorders became cheap and ubiquitous, around the start of the century. There's also the growing use of license plate scanners, often seen mounted on police cars or even at stationary points along roadways.

Those license plate scanners can record your whereabouts (well, the whereabouts of your vehicle), upload this information to a database in realtime, and maintain an extensive historical record of your outside-the-home movements, too. And in most states, there are no limits to how much of this data police can collect, nor on how long they keep it.

But some states are pushing back against such privacy encroachments. Virginia is one of them; last week, state Senate Bill 965 made it onto Governor Terry McAuliffe's desk, presumably to be signed into law. SB 965, also called the “Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act,” passed the State Senate and House of Delegates unanimously.

Seven days

The bill, if signed into law, will still allow the use of license plate scanners in Virginia – but police would be limited to holding those records for only seven days, unless there is an active, ongoing criminal investigation.

The bill says, among other things, that:

B. The General Assembly finds that:

1. An individual's privacy is directly affected by the extensive collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personal information;

2. The increasing use of computers and sophisticated information technology has greatly magnified the harm that can occur from these practices;

3. An individual's opportunities to secure employment, insurance, credit, and his right to due process, and other legal protections are endangered by the misuse of certain of these personal information systems; and

4. In order to preserve the rights guaranteed a citizen in a free society, legislation is necessary to establish procedures to govern information systems containing records on individuals.

Democratic state senator Chap Petersen, who authored the bill, told ArsTechnicathis week that the bill was deliberately written in broad language, to cover potential future threats:

"My bill speaks broadly to any technology that is used to capture data in a passive or indiscriminate way … It could be used for facial recognition or VIN numbers. I'm not just worried about this technology, I'm worried about future technologies.
"It was clear to me that the state had no business collecting this information. I wasn't a criminal suspect, so why are they taking pictures of me? Or my wife? Law enforcement only has powers that we authorize them. They shouldn't just be able to use any tech that they want or to surveil people when they're not subject to an investigation. You can't just do it because you feel like it, and that to me is very critical."

Not hypothetical

Petersen's fears of mass surveillance are not hypothetical, not even in his own state. In 2008, for example, the Virginia State Police used automatic license plate scanners to track and record motorists who attended political events — though this information didn't come out until five years later, after the ACLU demanded to see certain law enforcement records.

If SB 965 does become state law, then such secretive monitoring will no longer be allowed in Virginia, since another section of the bill says:

Recordkeeping agencies of the Commonwealth and political subdivisions shall adhere to the following principles of information practice to ensure safeguards for personal privacy:

1. There shall be no personal information system whose existence is secret.

Privacy advocates hope that other states will follow Virginia's lead in limiting the storage time for license plate scanner data, or even go farther. New Hampshire, for example, has banned license plate tracking altogether.

Police in Boston “indefinitely suspended” their use in December 2013, after a media investigation raised serious privacy concerns.

On the other hand, while cities like Boston and states like Virginia limit their use of scanners, other cities are choosing to adopt them. The city council in Dallas voted in 2013 to start using license plate scanners.

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