The surveillance industry is fighting back. A company that makes automated license plate readers sued Utah's government Thursday over a new law there intended to protect drivers' privacy.
Digital Recognition Network Inc. of Fort Worth, which makes license-plate readers that rapidly scan the tags of passing vehicles, argues that a new state ban on license-plate scanning by private companies infringes on its free-speech rights to collect and disseminate the information it captures, and has effectively put it out of business there.
The case is an early example of pushback as Congress and state legislatures consider proposals to rein in phone-records collection, drones and license-plate readers. At least 14 states are considering measures that would curb such collections.
Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored the new law, said his proposal gained momentum after legislators discovered police were gathering widespread data from mobile license-plate readers. He said those cameras can be useful, such as recovering stolen cars, but he worried about the privacy implications when organizations store that data indefinitely.
"It's one thing to take a photo," he said. "It's another to take photos every 80th of a millisecond, and then store that data you can later be identified by."
The Texas company says it's not a police agency — law enforcement already is exempt from the ban under Utah's new law — nor can it access in bulk federally protected driver data that personally identifies the letters and numbers it collects from license plates in public. The company said it only wants to find cars that have been stolen or repossessed, not to cull large swaths of data and incriminate people from their travel habits.
"People tend to invoke privacy and suspend judgment and skepticism," said Michael Carvin of Jones Day, a law firm representing the company and Vigilant Solutions Inc., a license-data network that shares information with authorities to find missing people. "We don't track people," he said.
Thursday's lawsuit marks one of the first times surveillance-technology firms have invoked the First Amendment arguments to defend their businesses. The lawsuit, which asks a federal judge to put Utah's law on hold, relies in part on the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. It stripped away restrictions on corporate and union spending in elections on free-speech grounds.
The company's founder, Todd Hodnett, said the technology has helped recover more than 300,000 stolen cars in five years. Companies like Vigilant have lobbied the federal government recently on law-enforcement uses of license-plate-reader technology.
Revelations about surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency have driven a sustained debate since summer on the balance between privacy and government intrusion. Classified NSA documents, leaked to news organizations, showed the NSA was collecting telephone records, emails and video chats of millions of Americans who were not suspected of a crime.
Some state legislatures have been unhappy with the speed Congress has pushed for reform. Their proposals include a Colorado law that would limit the retention of images from license-plate readers, an Oregon bill that would require "urgent circumstances" to obtain cellphone location data and a Delaware plan designed to enhance privacy protections for text messages.
Republicans and Democrats have joined in proposing the measures, reflecting the unusual mix of political alliances formed since the NSA revelations. Establishment leadership has generally favored the programs, while conservative, limited-government advocates and liberal privacy supporters have opposed them.
Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said license-plate readers pose substantial privacy risks because they can aggregate millions of license-plate hits. "That poses the possibility of charting people's movements in great detail over time," she said. She acknowledged that laws like Utah's raise questions that should balance First Amendment rights, such as taking photos in public.
Associated Press writer Nigel Duara in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.
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