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Civil Rights Advocates Concerned About Privacy Bill Amendments

Vince LoPresti/Flickr via NPR

Lawmakers in Virginia passed a couple of bills earlier this year to protect personal privacy. But the governor has amended those measures, and civil rights advocates are furious.

When the general assembly approved a bill limiting the use of drones to spy on citizens, not a single lawmaker voted against it, and Claire Gastanaga, who heads the American Civil Liberties office in Richmond was pleased.

“The way that the law passed, police couldn’t put a drone over your house without a warrant, and if they violated that state law, they couldn’t then introduce the evidence they collected against you.”

Only four lawmakers voted against a second bill that forced police to erase any information they gathered using automatic license plate readers after seven days unless they had a warrant or a pending criminal case. The readers, which sit on the back of moving patrol cars, photograph hundreds of license plates each minute, stamping the photos with a time and location.  An instant check of databases can ID a stolen car, but police can also keep and review the information later to see if a suspect was near the scene of a crime.  Some departments keep the information for a couple of years. The ACLU thinks that’s too long.

“The concern here is what government’s doing is building massive data bases with this data.  They’re very close to being able basically to predict where you go next.   You know if you park your car in front of the place where there’s an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every time there’s one of those meetings, pretty soon law enforcement knows you’re at that meeting and they also know who else is there.”

Some people think that’s okay - they haven’t done anything illegal, but the fact that police have that capability worries Gastanaga.

“Some people believe that if you go to a Sarah Palin rally, the government shouldn’t have a list of everybody who was there because they have a picture of everybody’s license plate…which they did…or, if you went to the Obama inaugural in 2009. I have no problem with them taking a picture of the license plates that day because if something bad happened then they would have some data to use in the investigation. And the way the law was written, it would absolutely permit that. But what it doesn’t permit is putting a camera on I-95, taking pictures of every car that goes by, and keeping it indefinitely just because it might come in handy some day.”

In addition to license plate readers, the bill applied to information gathered with body cameras and other surveillance devices.  Lobbyists for law enforcement thought that went too far, and Governor Terry McAuliffe amended both bills to give police a lot more leeway.

Groups concerned about civil liberties on the left and right are asking lawmakers to vote down the governor’s amendments when they hold their veto session on Wednesday.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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