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Bill would tighten limits on license plate readers

BEND — Police pitch automatic license plate readers as the future of law enforcement on the roads. By feeding thousands of license plates into a database every day, officers can look for stolen cars and parking-ticket scofflaws.

But civil liberties advocates have questioned use of the cameras.

Republican state Sen. Tim Knopp hopes to rein them in with a bill that would limit how long police can retain the data captured by the readers, including photos and location information, The Bulletin in Bend reported.

The proposed Oregon bill joins dozens of others across the country that seek to limit and analyze the ways in which local and state police agencies deploy surveillance methods on roads and online.

Earlier this year, a different state proposal to limit the collection of cellphone location data failed to get serious consideration.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined in proposing the measures, reflecting some unusual political partnerships that have arisen since revelations about government surveillance began in May 2013 with leaks about the National Security Agency from former contractor Edward Snowden.

Establishment leadership has generally favored the programs, while conservative limited government advocates and liberal privacy supporters have opposed them. Privacy advocates say the measures are needed because technology has grown to the point that police can digitally track someone's every move.

For license plate readers, the lack of uniformity and independent oversight has created a "patch quilt of policies," Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association lobbyist Gail Meyer said.

Law enforcement agencies write their own policies and decide how long images and time and location stamps are stored before they are deleted from the system. Some police departments delete their photos after two years, while others, such as the Portland Police Bureau, keep them for up to four.

"They don't let us know if in the course of our cases that, 'Oh, we found these using ALPR cameras,' " Meyer said, referring to automatic license plate readers. "So it's remained under the radar, so to speak, because there hasn't been forced disclosure of this information."

Portland police Lt. John Scruggs, who oversees the agency's reader program, said the cameras are not invasive because license plates lack identifying information.

"The allegations that they make that we can track people's personal lives is just not happening. The system is not that robust," Scruggs said.