By Jonathan Riley
BOSTON -- Over the last several years, particularly in bigger cities, traffic cameras have become commonplace. Run a red light, your picture gets taken, and you get a ticket in the mail.
But even if you obey the law, your information may still be recorded.
Recently on Beacon Hill, legislators heard testimony on a bill to regulate and restrict the use of automatic license-plate readers or "ALPRs" -- camera devices that can be mounted anywhere, from tollbooths to repossession vehicles, in order to scan license plates and record car locations.
"There is no law in Massachusetts that regulates their use," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, adding that most municipalities using ALPRs don't even have written policies regulating their use.
License-plate readers may be more common in larger metropolitan areas, such as Boston, but they're also used in many smaller municipalities, including Lowell, Chelmsford and Tewksbury.
According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Lowell Police Department had one license-plate reader as of 2010 and was applying for grant funding for at least one more to be mounted on a police vehicle.
The Lowell Police Department "has extensive experience with ALPR equipment," according to the documents.
Timothy Crowley, the lieutenant in charge of the Traffic Division, was serving as the "ALPR administrator" at the time.
"At the conclusion of each ALPR deployment, the (lieutenant) downloads all the license- plate numbers that were scanned throughout the deployment into a database on his computer. Therefore, the (Lowell Police Department) is able to keep track of every license plate scanned during each deployment," according to the documents.
Lowell Police Superintendent William Taylor said the department retains the data from the license-plate reader for a maximum of 180 days, and the department does not share the data with other agencies.
Along with all of the department's policies, the written policy on ALPR data privacy is being reviewed and will be reissued, Taylor said.
The lieutenant in charge of the department's Traffic Division, according to the documents, would input all information gathered into a database after each ALPR deployment, maintaining records "including the license-plate number, a picture of the vehicle, details including color, make and model, as well as exactly where the car was when it was scanned."
"In addition to being extremely useful for identifying motor-vehicle violations, the ALPR can also assist the (Lowell police) to track down individuals," according to the grant application.
In Chelmsford, according to documents obtained by the ACLU, police planned to purchase a license-plate reader in early 2011 with grant funding, to be "deployed 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Chelmsford Police Lt. Colin Spence said the department now has three license-plate readers, including two acquired last year. He said the department has a policy in place regarding retention of ALPR data.
"We only keep it for 30 days," Spence said, adding that he doesn't think the department's use of license-plate readers raises privacy concerns.
"It's very limited what the license-plate reader addresses," Spence said. "It really is a secondary tool that the officers use."
The Tewksbury Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
At the recent hearing on the state Senate's ALPR bill, concerns were raised about how data from the devices are used.
"You really don't have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine possible abuses of that data, especially without any statutory protection," Creem said.
State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, cited similar concerns as his reasons for sponsoring the House version of the ALPR bill.
"We have no law in this area at all," he said, "and where there's no law, it's the law of the jungle, basically."
Private companies are another concern. They aggregate massive amounts of license-plate data, selling it to everyone from government agencies to banks. The CEO of one such company, Chris Metaxas of Digital Recognition Network, testified against the ALPR bill at the recent hearing.
"There is absolutely no expectation of privacy in a license plate," Metaxas said. "It contains no personal nor identifiable information.
"LPR technology is simply photography," he added. "LPR technology stores these pictures, just like today people store pictures like they do on Instagram, which are available for all to see."
Digital Recognition Network stores up to 50 million license-plate locations per month, with a total of more than 700 million records in its database as of last July, according to an ACLU report.
ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said there's a difference between taking a single license-plate picture and collecting millions, which allows for tracking people's movements.
"It's fundamentally different than the fact that there could be someone on the street who sees your car drive by," Rose said, "when we have automatic -- whether through drones or license-plate readers -- people just scooping up and keeping this information forever."
Metaxas testified, however, that strict legal guidelines exist under the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act about who can pay to access Digital Recognition Network's database.
"We believe that your bills should enforce laws that are already in place, enforce the DPPA standards and make them more visible so people are held accountable against those standards," he said.
He called the Senate ALPR bill "a reaction to misinformation and scare tactics."
Hecht said there are legitimate law-enforcement uses of ALPRs, but stressed the importance of looking at "how we balance the interests of these businesses that have gotten into this area with the privacy concerns of our constituents."
He said it matters, he who has access to the vast amounts of sensitive data.
"In private hands, of course, they're interested in selling it, so they're going to be looking for markets," Hecht said.
The hearing on the Senate version of the ALPR bill came just two weeks after the Washington Post reported that the Department of Homeland Security was soliciting a private contractor to operate a national license plate-tracking database.
Some see the ALPR regulation bill as not going far enough.
"It's not going to make any difference," said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild's Massachusetts branch. "You can regulate use of cameras, but we have no ability to really make sure that law is enforced."
Creem and Hecht pointed out that the Boston police suspended their ALPR program in December, after it was revealed that they had accidentally released more than 68,000 license-plate numbers gathered through ALPRs to The Boston Globe, that, according to its own rules, should have been redacted.
"In our opinion, all surveillance cameras should be removed," Masny-Latos said.