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ALDOT may allow police cameras, plate readers; Orr worries about ‘Big Brother’

The Alabama Department of Transportation is considering allowing law enforcement agencies access to ALDOT rights-of-way and structures to install license plate readers and other surveillance equipment.

At least one Alabama lawmaker said legislation may be needed to regulate the use of the devices and information they collect.

Tony Harris, government relations manager for ALDOT, said the proposed rules are a result of recent requests from multiple police agencies.

“It will be our practice to limit the use of those devices to law enforcement and public safety,” Harris said.

“… We’re looking for a way to provide that access (to law enforcement) if we can while still managing the use of our rights-of-way.”

A public notice about the proposed “public safety sensors” says ALDOT will only grant permits for the devices on ALDOT property to incorporated municipalities, county governments or other state agencies or institutions.

“… The use of accommodated sensors and all collected data shall be strictly limited to law enforcement or public safety purposes, whether maintained or stored by the governmental entity or any private service provider,” the notice says.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he’s gotten calls from concerned constituents about the proposal.

“This reminds me of ‘Big Brother’ and the police state,” Orr said. “I’m all for helping law enforcement catch criminals, but we must be careful that it doesn’t lead to gathering information on everyone else.”

“… I’m concerned about going down this road without any limitations or restrictions or accountability on the government to use these monitoring devices.”

A sample application provided in the public notice lists license plate readers, gunshot detection devices and legacy surveillance cameras as allowable devices. Agencies can also submit other uses on their applications.

Agencies would have to apply to ALDOT and permits will be valid for three years. The department will not charge fees, Harris said. Data collected by agencies cannot be monetized, the public notice says.

Harris compared the devices to those seen on television police dramas. Plate readers can help locate vehicles used in suspected crimes.

Several Alabama cities already use some the devices ALDOT is considering. In 2018, the city of Huntsville put gunshot detectors and surveillance cameras on a few streets to deter crime. Montgomery and Birmingham have used gunshot detectors for several years to locate and track gunfire.

A spokeswoman for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said it has no plans to access ALDOT property at this time.

“Other states have been ahead of the curve on this,” Harris said. “This is our way of accommodating law enforcment as they begin to adopt these devices in Alabama.”

As of early 2019, 16 states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, had statutes about the use of automated license plate readers that capture computer-readable images, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Several of those states limit the usage of the devices to law enforcement and set parameters on how the information can be used and how long it can be stored.

“Because other states have limitations on the use of this information, I will definitely have legislation ready for filing that will rein in unfettered use by government,” Orr said. “Though my preference is we don’t have this privacy intrusion at all.”

A public comment period ends May 29. A review process follows.

“We’ll use that review process to make our final decisions about any potential rules,” Harris said.

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