We should know by now that just because Virginia’s General Assembly has gaveled out of legislative session doesn’t mean it’s over.
As lawmakers, we rejected bills this session that would have allowed law enforcement to conduct mass surveillance of Virginia drivers using tools called automatic license plate readers.
Those readers would have allowed law enforcement and even private companies to collect data on every car that drives by.
In a driving state like Virginia, you can see why this kind of technology was cause for alarm: technology that can track which doctors, political events, and even churches that Virginians visit – all without being required to have a search warrant?
Our vote – and that of our fellow lawmakers – was very clear: no.
Yet even though we rejected HB 1437 and SB 1165, the two bills that sought to give Virginia law enforcement access to these tools, somehow, the proposal is back on the table.
On Thursday, the Criminal Justice Services Board will vote on a proposal to use American Rescue Plan Act grants to fund $8.1 million in surveillance technology throughout Virginia – including the very automatic license plate readers that we already squarely rejected during this year’s legislative session.
Automatic license plate readers are no small matter. They would utilize Virginians’ vehicles to gather massive amounts of data on where those vehicles go, and they would put all the data they gather on a nationwide network for anyone in law enforcement to access.
Say you pick up a prescription. Say you visit your pastor. Say you drive to a political fundraiser.
All those activities would be preserved indefinitely in a comprehensive database that both law enforcement and the private companies selling the technology would have access to – along with your license plate number, vehicle characteristics, and the bumper stickers you have on your car.
Mass surveillance makes all Virginians less free. That’s something we both agree on, despite being on opposite sides of the aisle: after all, it’s not partisan to believe in limiting government intrusion into private activity.
Nor is it partisan to believe that preserving personal freedom of movement is one of legislators’ highest callings. Our fellow lawmakers certainly believe that: that’s why they rejected this invasive, unregulated technology when it was first presented to us.
Nor was that the only reason that we decided this kind of technology is a bad deal for Virginia. A 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that as few as 0.2 percent of license plates photographed by automated license plate readers are ever linked to criminal activity.
Why expose Virginians to warrantless invasion for so little gain? Even more important, why divert taxpayer dollars away from crime-fighting strategies that have proven to be much more effective, such as community policing and targeted investigations?
Add to that the yet unknown financial burden of deploying these ineffective license plate readers on taxpayers, and it’s clear that the costs of gathering and storing information about where Virginians travel far outweigh any paltry benefits that the companies that manufacture them are trying to sell us.
Police and private companies’ collection of data from every person who travels on Virginia roadways is a system of mass surveillance rife for abuse.
As lawmakers, we are sworn to protect the lives and liberty of the people they represent – not cooperate with private companies in spying on Virginians.
We did that when we rejected the use of automatic license plate readers when it was proposed to us in during the General Assembly.
The Criminal Justice Services Board should respect lawmakers’ decision. We urge its members not to dedicate grant funding to surveillance technology that we rejected.