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April 8, 2015

Richmond, VA –  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia said today that it has sent emails to all members of the General Assembly last Friday and today urging them to reject Governor McAuliffe’s amendments to bi-partisan privacy legislation that passed during the 2015 General Assembly Session almost unanimously. As passed, bills HB 1673 (Anderson R Prince William), SB 965 (Petersen D Fairfax), HB 2125 (Cline R Rockbridge), and SB 1301 (McEachin D Richmond) protect the privacy of all Virginians while allowing law enforcement to continue to ensure public safety.

“The Governor's amendments would turn pro-privacy legislation into pro-surveillance laws,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “The Governor’s changes would gut the statutory warrant requirement in the drone bills (SB 1301 and HB 2125) and have the effect of repealing provisions in current Virginia law that regulate the collection and dissemination of personal information by all government agencies, including law enforcement (HB 1673 and SB 965).”

Throughout the 2015 legislative session, in arguing against both the drone bills and the bills clarifying the law governing use of surveillance technologies to collect personal information, including license plate readers (LPRs), law enforcement lobbyists maintained that less restrictive privacy protections need to be in place in order to ensure public safety. Legislators heard and overwhelmingly rejected this argument (in all its forms) and voted to support the pro-privacy legislation almost unanimously.

Strengthening the pro-privacy argument are the numerous documented cases of abuse by law enforcement when it comes to surveillance and the use of data collected through surveillance, including both low tech and high tech surveillance.

“Minority individuals and communities have long been and will likely continue to be disproportionately targets of government surveillance, whether by federal agencies or local police, and whether the surveillance comes in the form of police practices like stop and frisk or more high tech forms of dragnet data collection,” continued Gastañaga.

“Moreover, regarding abuse of the data collected, recent reports have shown that in states like Minnesota, Illinois, and North Carolina law enforcement personnel have used data inappropriately to stalk and harm innocent individuals,” Gastañaga explained. “Women have especially been targeted by police officers turned stalkers. And, in one case, a police officer hacked into the private email accounts of fellow police officers to pry into the private comings and goings of an ex-girlfriend.”

The legislation passed by the General Assembly strengthened current data privacy protections contained in Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act and established a new statutory warrant requirement for the use of drones. The Governor’s proposed amendments would give Virginia law enforcement leeway not only to maintain data collected for an extended period of time, but also to collect some data inappropriately without the use of a warrant and to use that data as evidence in civil and criminal proceedings.

“Virginians do not want our local and State Police, Sheriffs and prosecutors to model their policies and conduct after the NSA or the DEA or simply to mimic what other states do. It’s time to say no to policies that are driven more by fear than common sense,” concluded Gastañaga.