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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe

Virginia Gov. Attempts To Rewrite Bill Limiting Government Surveillance

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe  is attempting to amend a bill that would protect Virginia residents from high-tech government surveillance.

Senate Bill 965, introduced by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, was designed 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 limited how long 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.

Under the authority of the Justice Department, the DEA has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of millions of vehicles around the country, recently released government documents show.

The now-not-so-secret domestic intelligence-gathering program scans license plates and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists in order to “seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking,” one government document says.

Since its inception however, the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with many other potential crimes.

McAuliffe recently 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 entire purpose of the bill.

“SB 965 was a major step forward for personal freedom and civil liberty,” Petersen said. “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, Petersen continued. “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 has 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,” ACLU-VA executive director Clair Guthrie Gastañaga said.

The ACLU urged McAuliffe to rethink his proposed amendments and join the General Assembly in supporting stricter privacy legislation.

The Assembly will reconvene April 15 to decide whether to uphold or reject McAuliffe’s amendments.