If you haven’t noticed, the future is now, and for privacy advocates, it can be a scary place. This modern world of ours is full of electronic eyes — many of them run by federal, state and local authorities — that can be used (and sometimes abused) at will.
State Rep. Nate Steel (D-Nashville) is concerned about the potential abuse of electronic intelligence gathering. In the past week, he has filed a group of bills he’s calling a “privacy package” that he hopes will help protect the rights of Arkansans both online and in the real world.
In the order of their filing, the bills Steel has put forward are House Bill 1901, which would prohibit an employer from forcing a current or prospective employee to reveal his or her email or social media network username or password; HB 1902, which would prohibit a college or university from requiring employees or students to reveal their passwords or usernames; HB1904, which would regulate and restrict the use of unmanned surveillance aircraft (drones) by law enforcement agencies, and HB 1996, which would stipulate how long law enforcement agencies can archive data collected by automatic license plate readers, which scan and archive information on every car they pass. Steel has also filed a shell bill, HB 2296, which he hopes to amend into a bill dealing with tracking of people via their cell phone or other electronic device.
License plate scanners consist of a multiple camera system in a police patrol car that scans and archives the location of every license plate the system “sees” as the car drives along, as well as the time and date. The system alerts the officer if it detects a plate that is associated with a wanted suspect.
Steel’s bill would require law enforcement agencies to delete most of the data collected by automatic plate readers after seven days, unless a “governmental entity” makes a preservation request. That request would extend the deletion limit to 14 days in order to give law enforcement time to seek a court order to preserve it as evidence. “Statistical data” such as the number of license plates scanned, the number of confirmed matches to suspect vehicles, the number of matches that resulted in arrests and other basic data would be preserved for research purposes, but not GPS locations, times of the scans, or plate numbers. The bill would also exempt the data from the Freedom of Information Act and would prohibit the collected information from being used in civil proceedings.
“I don’t know if we’ll stick with seven days, or we’ll go shorter or longer,” Steel said. “I guess I’ll feel out other members. But I think that’s plenty of time for them to issue a prosecutor’s subpoena. Absent of that, I don’t think we should have the data so somebody can FOI a police file to find out where their wife was a week ago.”
Steel said the license plate scanner bill is already garnering support on both sides of the aisle. “I don’t think it’s going to be all that controversial,” he said. “Nobody really has a problem with the use of the technology for [alerting officers to wanted cars]. What we have a problem with is the compiling and the keeping of the data and personal information.”
The Little Rock Police Department currently has one patrol car with plate scanning technology, which is assigned to the downtown division, and has discussed outfitting more cars with the technology. Sgt. Cassandra Davis, spokesman for the Little Rock Police Department, said that as of this writing, the department has no written policy on when data captured by the plate scanning system should be deleted. The information collected could be subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, but Davis said the city attorney would review each case and certain information would be redacted prior to release. She said that the seven-day limit stipulated in Steel’s bill would likely be sufficient in most cases, though she said there are instances in which detectives only learn about a suspect long after a crime. By that time, the information would have been deleted.
Steel said the drone bill is based on legislation passed in other states, and will have to be amended. As for the bills that would prohibit employers or universities from seeking passwords or usernames, Steel said they wouldn’t restrict anyone from seeing anything that’s in the public domain, but would prohibit them from seeking “special access.” Steel said that extending that protection for job seekers is important given the current job market.
“Sometimes people are willing to do whatever it takes to get a job, especially in this environment,” he said. “I don’t want employers to be tempted to use that bargaining position in a hiring contract or anything else.”
Steel said it’s a good time politically to draw together bipartisan alliances on the issue of electronic privacy. As a former prosecutor, he said he’s one of the most pro-law-enforcement legislators in the House, and doesn’t want to limit the use of new technologies during investigations when necessary. He said he does, however, want to make sure departments respect the rights of citizens.
“If we see them overstepping, I think it’s our job to kind of point that out,” he said. “We just want to make sure that the use of new technology — whether it’s license plate scanners or drone aircraft or anything else — complies with Fourth Amendment law.”