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Doubling Down on Wrong: Massachusetts and LPR Legislation

As the weight of public opinion, legislation and expert analysis swings nationally in the direction of common-sense policy for license plate recognition technology, Massachusetts is digging in its heels, doubling down on an extreme, unconstitutional measure that will hamstring technology and undermine safety in exchange for no tangible benefit.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, privacy extremists saw a unique opportunity to demonize a popular, widely-used technology that had never before been controversial in mainstream circles. Conjuring images of mass surveillance and tracking, the ACLU successfully prodded several states to introduce legislation to curb the use of license plate recognition (LPR) technology.

White House Technologists Say Focus on Use

But in the past six months, a funny thing has happened. As technologists, law enforcement, and legal experts began to explain what license plate recognition technology actually does (as opposed to what the ACLU baselessly claims it could do in some dystopian future) the national discussion has shifted away from hard-line restrictions on LPR and toward a balanced approach which focuses on access controls (i.e. logging who has accessed the data and for what purpose) and best practices in database security to ensure the protection stored LPR data.

[pullquote]Policy attention should focus more on the actual uses of big data and less on its collection and analysis – White House Report[/pullquote]

Maryland led the way, by replacing a knee-jerk anti-LPR bill with a truly thoughtful piece of legislation that shifts the focus to ensuring that LPR data is properly secured and used only for its intended purposes, and only by those qualified to access the data.

Then, earlier this month, the White House released its much-anticipated Big Data report, which, rather than seeking to arbitrarily restrict legitimate data collection, redirects the focus on how data is used.

Massachusetts Goes In the Wrong Direction

The Massachusetts legislature’s dogged decision to push forward the nation’s most regressive, restrictive anti-LPR bill is all the more troubling in light of the nationwide shift toward rationality and balance.

The Massachusetts law flies in the face of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommendations, by directly restricting legitimate data collection, rather than focusing on ensuring safe, legitimate use. It also ignores the embarrassing experience of the Utah legislature, which earlier this year withdrew its anti-LPR legislation after it was challenged on First Amendment grounds.

In addition to establishing irresponsible restrictions on LPR data collection, the Massachusetts bill borrows another bad idea from the ACLU, by seeking to impose arbitrary and unnecessary limits on how long LPR data can be retained, even by law enforcement.

In short, the legislation draws on every year-old debunked ACLU talking point about LPR, while rejecting all of the evidence-based analysis that has come since.

The result is a measure that threatens the safety of Massachusetts communities  and sends precisely the wrong message about the role of technology in the state, without giving citizens anything in return. Any way you look at it, that’s a bad bet.