Police could closely track the movements of millions of innocent Connecticut drivers under a bill that would allow authorities to keep license plate scans for five years, David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, told the state legislature's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

McGuire testified against House Bill 5389, which would ban all private use of automatic license plate recognition systems, set a five-year retention limit on license plate data collected by law enforcement and exempt the data from release under the Freedom of Information Act.

License plate scanners consist of cameras, usually mounted on police cars but sometimes on stationary roadside fixtures, that capture images of passing plates. Computers convert the images to digital characters and compare those records to lists of stolen, unregistered and uninsured vehicles. The system signals an alert when the computer finds a match so that police can pull over the vehicle.

Used in that way, license plate scanners are a useful and appropriate law enforcement tool, McGuire said. But when the plate numbers are aggregated over long periods, along with the exact GPS coordinates and the times and dates of the scans, they provide a detailed record of a driver's movements. Those records could track individuals to places of worship, job sites, medical treatments, mental health clinics, bars and political meetings, revealing not only where they've been but with whom they associate.

In three years, McGuire said, a 10-town alliance in central Connecticut collected 6 million scans. A privately maintained national database has 1.8 billion scans and is growing by 100 million scans a month. As more police departments deploy more scanners, the collection rate will continue to increase.

Five years of data would expose far too much personal information, McGuire said, noting that many other states have adopted much shorter retention periods and that Massachusetts is now considering a 48-hour limit. The Connecticut State Police already discard license plate scan data after 90 days under a policy that also limits access to the data and calls for regular audits, he said.

McGuire suggested an even shorter retention period of 14 days, but urged legislators to talk to state police about their practices. "The state police policy is a really well-thought-out policy," he said.

The exemption from Freedom of Information law also drew opposition from the ACLU of Connecticut. The data should be available, with plate numbers masked to protect drivers' privacy, so the public can see how the technology is being used and assess the impact on privacy, McGuire said.

Carroll Hughes, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said police would like to keep the data for longer than five years.