Should government spy on its citizens without a warrant or reason? If you think so, you need read no further. If you think not, then you support bipartisan legislation in the Virginia General Assembly that would strictly limit the ability of government to collect information through “mass surveillance technology,” defined as the means to observe ordinary citizens without their knowledge or consent.
The legislation was spurred by the use of license-plate readers (LPRs), which allow law enforcement agencies to scan and register thousands of license plates in a matter of hours. Introduced in Northern Virginia in 2012, LPRs immediately drew the concern of civil libertarians because of their ability to vacuum up and hold data, including the identity and location of vehicles on roadways and in private parking lots.
In 2013, Virginia’s attorney general issued an opinion that the indiscriminate use of LPRs violated an existing state law, the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. The Virginia State Police stopped using LPRs altogether; other departments reined in their use. However, several Northern Virginia police departments ignored the attorney general’s opinion and continued to collect LPR data without restraint or reason.
In 2014, we filed legislation to put the attorney general’s opinion into Virginia law. But we withdrew our bills for a year so we could speak with law enforcement, civil libertarians and citizens. This year, we refiled our bills, which banned the indiscriminate use of LPRs and carved out a seven-day exception for holding data and a broader exception for images needed in pending investigations.
The legislation spoke to any “surveillance technology” that could be used to spy on citizens. The bills were supported by an unprecedented ACLU-tea party alliance and other groups but opposed by police agencies using LPRs in violation of the attorney general’s earlier opinion.
Our legislation passed the General Assembly with near-unanimity. The home of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason again took the lead in protecting the right of the people to privacy.
But then, a funny thing happened. The administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) amended the legislation in a way that effectively destroyed it by extending the window for holding license-plate data from seven days to 60 days and eliminating the broader reference to “surveillance technology.”
In effect, the McAuliffe amendments allow spy technology on a massive scale against Virginia citizens and reward police departments that fail to comply with the original law and the attorney general’s opinion. The amendments change our legislation from bills that protect privacy to bills that permit almost-unrestrained government surveillance.
The General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday and has a chance to vote on the governor’s actions. It can adopt them and give carte blanche authority to law enforcement to collect license-plate data, vehicle locations, Internet data, cellphone records and other high-tech property of the people.
Or it can take a stand for freedom, reject the governor’s changes and pen another chapter in Virginia’s long history of defending the civil liberties of its people.
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