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January 16. 2014 12:20AM

Lawmakers kill bill to spy on motorists with license plate scanners

CONCORD — Touting the privacy rights of New Hampshire citizens, House members Wednesday voted overwhelmingly — 250-97 — to kill a bill that would have allowed police to use license plate scanners, and then banned the issue for the rest of the session.

With the House vote, New Hampshire continues to be the only state in the country to prohibit the use of license plate scanners. Collecting license plate information at toll booths and bridges is allowed.

Recording license plate data is the same as Big Brother watching citizens in George Orwell's novel "1984" opponents said — or at least a big step down that slippery slope.

However, supporters of House Bill 675 said it would improve public safety and make police departments more efficient. And they said the bill protects privacy rights because police would destroy the data after holding it for three minutes to match data bases for wanted or missing people. Local communities would have had to vote to allow their police to use the readers.

One of the House's most adamant privacy advocates, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said the bill would change current public policy, which forbids the practice.

Kurk and others cited revelations about the National Security Agency's massive data collection leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.

"We have to ask ourselves in New Hampshire if we want to go down that road of collecting metadata on innocent individuals," Kurk said. "If we say yes (to this bill,) that is not consistent with New Hampshire values."

He said 99.5 percent of the license plate information collected is from innocent people who are not wanted for anything.

Collecting the information could allow the state to know a person's driving habits, or whether a person goes to a drug treatment clinic or a particular meeting, Kurk said.

He predicted if the bill passed, police would be back before the legislature seeking to retain the information longer.

"The issue for me is whether or not personal privacy is protected," Kurk said. "If you adopt this, you will erode that privacy — not immediately — but in the future."

And he said, protecting the state-collected information would be difficult.

"When you create a database, it has value and someone will try to get it," said Kurk. "We are creating another honey pot and the bees and the bears will be there."

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, mentioned George Orwell's "1984" and government tracking its citizens' every move.

"This moves us back into the era of Big Brother," Vaillancourt said.

But bill supporters said the use of the scanners will improve public safety and would help locate missing children or elderly persons, quickly identify stolen cars or plates, and target those wanted by law enforcement

Rep. Geoffrey Hirsh, D-Bradford, noted New Hampshire nearly leads the nation in per-capita vanity plates.

He said with vanity plates, any sense of privacy is close to delusional. And he said each community would decide if its police department would be allowed to use the license plate scanners.

Other supporters said people's concerns about privacy are misplaced.

"Those of us who are law-abiding citizens should not have anything to fear," said Rep. Robert Theberge, D-Berlin.

After killing the bill, the House then voted 214-135 to prohibit the House from considering the issue again this session.

grayno@unionleader.com


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