State lawmakers push for privacy rights

State lawmakers push for privacy rights

By Kathryn Watson [File Photo]

The government is watching you.

Local police in Virginia randomly collect and keep photographs of license plates. Virginia universities are testing drones and, as of next July, police and other authorities in the commonwealth will begin to use unmanned aerial devices.

It’s with that in mind that two Northern Virginia lawmakers — Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen and Republican Delegate Richard Anderson — have formed the Ben Franklin Privacy Caucus. In the months ahead, the lawmakers are looping the public into the process of forming privacy-related bills for the 2015 legislative session.

The name for the caucus stems from a Franklin quote: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Addressing the use of automatic license plate readers — technology that local police use to randomly capture images and data of up to 1,800 plates per minute — is a priority.

Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli deemed it illegal for local law enforcement to randomly scan and store license plate information without a warrant, but many localities have not heeded that legal direction. When this reporter submitted a request for any photographs of her license plate from the Alexandria Police Department, the request turned up more than a dozen photos over a six-month period.’s report went viral, and readers from around the country asked how they could track information police have on them.
Congress has since passed legislation barring the federal government from funding plate readers, but that doesn’t mean the technology has disappeared.

“The privacy threat that I see obviously is there’s not a solid rule set on the employment of license plate readers,” Anderson said in an interview earlier this year. “They’re a relatively new technology that’s been acquired by the law enforcement community. So what I want to do is come up with some sort of rule set, because technology expands so fast that it always stays in front of the rule set.”

Relationships between Republicans, Democrats and the executive branch in Richmond may be tense this year, but that isn’t keeping Anderson, Petersen and a few of their colleagues from fighting for common ground.

“We have our disputes, but a lot of it’s just expected in a democratic form of government,” Petersen said earlier this year. “I do think that some of these privacy issues, particularly where it deals with, shall we say, putting a limit on law enforcement, that you get a good mix of both liberals and conservatives. So oftentimes it gives you a good coalition of people. It’s not just the left versus right junk.”

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for’s Virginia Bureau, 
and can be reached at