Vermont stands as one of only a few states nationally that has taken steps to regulate the use of automated license plate readers. The action came in the 2013 legislative with the passage of S. 18. The regulations aren't as narrow as we wanted, but they impose important restrictions that greatly reduce the risk of abuse of ALPR systems.

Read the National ACLU report on ALPRs. Read the National ACLU report on ALPRs.

National attention has focused on the high-tech plate readers following the release Wednesday by the National ACLU of a review of ALPR use around the country. The swift and pervasive ALPR adoption by police agencies around the country, and storage of the data that’s collected, have set off alarm bells.

Vermont’s law contains these important provisions:

  • The length of time data may be retained has been shortened from four years to 18 months (we had pushed for 30 days). Police may ask a court to order preservation of data for longer periods if the data’s possible connection to a crime can be shown.
  • Who can have access to the data and under what circumstances are clearly defined.
  • Annual reporting on the use of ALPRs and data requests is required.

Here are more details:

  • ALPR data can only be used for a “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” which is defined as the “investigation, detection, analysis, or enforcement of a crime, traffic violation, or parking violation or operation of AMBER alerts or missing or endangered person searches.”
  • Requests to access data must be submitted in writing and are logged. (Data collected within the last seven days may be accessed by authorized personnel in the agency that collected the data.) Data is not retained at local agencies but must be sent to the Department of Public Safety.
  • Data may be retained by DPS longer than 18 months if a “preservation order” is sought and approved by the criminal division of Vermont Superior Court. “Specific and articulable facts” must be presented “showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the captured plate data are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal or missing persons investigation or to a pending court or Judicial Bureau proceeding.” Requests for additional extensions may be made under the same restrictions.

As far as we know, S. 18 marks the first time the Vermont legislature has regulated “big data.” This first step was, for the legislature, an introduction to the world of sophisticated government surveillance tools. Debate on the bill became sharp; when the proposal came to the House floor, one member wanted an immediate moratorium put on police use of the systems.

Ironically, had that happened, it’s possible private companies would have started their own network of cameras, captured plate data, and offered it for sale on the open market – even to police departments. The irony represents the inherent challenge in overseeing an activity that is legal, but because of its technical capability does much more than what an individual with paper and pen writing down plate numbers of passing cars can do. In the end, it was felt regulation of the existing police system was a better choice.

Our ongoing concern about ALPRs and other high-tech tools is this: Maybe they weren’t created or purchased to build a surveillance society, but they can be used that way. We want to make sure they aren’t. The public needs to be informed, and citizens need to take action when needed, to prevent the misuse of these technologies.