By Lyndsey Raynor
Capital News Service
A Democratic senator, a prominent Republican and civil libertarians are blasting Gov. Terry McAuliffe for amending a bill that would protect Virginia citizens from high-tech government surveillance.
Senate Bill 965, introduced by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, aimed to protect citizens’ right to privacy. The bill would limit the ability of government agencies and their use of technology to collect and maintain personal information on individuals and organizations.
“Unless a criminal or administrative warrant has been issued, law-enforcement and regulatory agencies shall not use any surveillance technology to collect or maintain personal information where such data is of unknown relevance and is not intended for prompt evaluation and potential use respecting suspected criminal activity or terrorism by any individual or organization,” the bill stated.
The legislation also said agencies could keep personal information such as license plate numbers for a maximum of seven days, unless it’s part of an ongoing investigation.
The legislation was motivated by the use of license plate readers – devices that capture the license plate numbers of every passing vehicle. But it also covered other technologies used to collect cell phone records, email records, Internet search records and other personal data.
McAuliffe last week proposed two amendments to SB 965:
- The first would eliminate restrictions on the use of mass surveillance technologies by law enforcement and allow law enforcement to maintain data collected by license plate readers for 60 days or more, depending on whether it is related to a criminal investigation.
- The second amendment would eliminate the inclusion of all surveillance technologies and make the bill apply only to license plate readers.
After hearing about the amendments, Petersen said McAuliffe’s recommendations would defeat the purpose of the bill.
“SB 965 was a major step forward for personal freedom and civil liberty,” Petersen said on his website. “It was supported by a truly novel alliance of supporters and led by civil liberty advocates. This amendment leaves it in tatters …
“These surveillance technologies are Big Government infringing on the rights of Virginians to live their lives in peace without government scrutiny. Given the nature of these amendments, which defeat that right, I would have rather had the Governor veto the bill.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia also issued a statement opposing the governor’s amendments.
“It’s difficult to understand why the Governor would propose amendments to pro-privacy legislation that would authorize unrestricted mass surveillance of Virginians by police and government agencies,” said Clair Guthrie Gastañaga, the group’s executive director.
The ACLU urged McAuliffe to rethink his proposed amendments and join the General Assembly in supporting stricter privacy legislation.
On Monday, Gastañaga and Ken Cuccinelli, a former state attorney general and the Republicans’ 2013 gubernatorial nominee, published a guest editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch criticizing the governor’s actions on privacy-related legislation.
“There are two principles on which people from across the political spectrum can agree,” Cuccinelli and Gastañaga wrote. “First, in a democracy like America’s, we should know more about government than it knows about us. Second, privacy from government is an element of liberty.”
SB 965 was endorsed by the General Assembly’s Ben Franklin Liberty Caucus, which was founded by Petersen and Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William. The caucus is a bipartisan group of legislators committed to protecting personal privacy in the commonwealth.
Petersen noted that the bill passed the Senate unanimously and received only a few “no” votes in the House. “I believe the final vote on the conference report, which utilized the broad ‘surveillance technology’ language, was unanimous.”
During legislative hearings, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, the State Police, the Prince William County Police Department and other law enforcement groups opposed SB 965.
License plate readers help law enforcement agencies track down stolen motor vehicles and people connected to criminal investigations, including theft and kidnapping. Some agencies store their LPR data for up to a year.
The General Assembly will reconvene on April 15 to decide whether to uphold or reject McAuliffe’s amendments and vetoes.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.