By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Forecasting remote-controlled flying devices the size of an insect and all-knowing location databases that can reveal a person's religious, social or medical visits, civil liberties advocates urged lawmakers to regulate emerging technology.

"In many ways these big databases know more about ourselves than we do. You know, where were you last Oct. 14? Can you document any place you went? Well I can't either, but a big database probably could," ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose told the Transportation Committee on Wednesday, seeking regulation to control the use of license plate tracking technology.

Digital Recognition Network CEO Chris Metaxas, who said he represents his "sister company" Vigilant Solutions, said automatic license plate reader systems help police solve crimes, help lenders repossess property and are protected by the First Amendment.

"We believe your bill is a reaction to misinformation and scare tactics provided by advocacy groups," Metaxas told the committee, opposing a bill (S 1648) filed by Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat. He said, "It is ruled by law in every state in the nation that there's absolutely no expectation of privacy in a license plate. It contains no personal nor identifiable information."

House Chairman William Straus said the committee has a working group to look at the "competing issues" of privacy protections, the right of individuals to collect publicly available data and the potential for a "chilling effect" on people gathering.

"I think it's very solvable," Rose said. She said, "It's fundamentally different from the fact that there could be someone on the street who sees your car drive by."

Others spoke in favor of Sen. Robert Hedlund's bill (S 1664) regulating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, mandating warrants when they are used by law enforcement except in cases of emergency.

"Drones are significantly different from technology that law enforcement uses today," ACLU staffer Kade Crockford said, advocating for regulations preventing an unmanned flying device "from surveilling your daughter as she sunbaths in your backyard."

Saying drones are much cheaper than other forms of policing and the technology is swiftly improving, Crockford said, "They're going to be the size of bugs within about the next ten or fifteen years."

The license plate technology, known as ALPR, is used often by police, with machines mounted on a cruiser scanning passing vehicles, as well as by some private data companies. Metaxas said there are limitations on how the data linking plate numbers to identities can be used and who can gain access to it.

"We are very good stewards of this data," said Metaxas, who said the technology is merely the photographing and storage of license plates, which he compared to the photo-sharing Internet company Instagram. Metaxas said there are "heat maps" where targeted vehicles are frequently picked up by ALPRS.

Metaxas said his company does not do business with private investigators, but said private eyes who meet certain qualifications can have access to the data.

Creem said few municipalities have written policies on the use of the data and said, "There is no law in Massachusetts that regulates their use." Creem's bill specifies what ALPR can be used for, circumstances under which it can be shared and how long it can be retained. Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, filed a similar bill (H 3068).

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday that state law does not provide people wearing skirts in public from a reasonable expectation of privacy if someone attempts to secretly take an "upskirt" photo, prompting House and Senate leaders to call for swift legislative action to address that issue.