COLUMBIA — A top South Carolina lawmaker wants to restrict how police use some of the newest tools available for tracking people's cell phones and travel in the state, arguing the technology violates people's rights as American citizens.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, has sponsored two bills this year to either ban or limit police agencies' use of cell site simulators and automatic license plate readers, two law enforcement tools that are now being used widely throughout the country.
The cell site simulators mimic cellphone towers, allowing police agencies to collect the data and location from every phone in a geographic area.
The license plate readers, attached to police vehicles or located over highways and streets, collects every license plate number it encounters. It automatically records an image of the vehicle and the date, time and location that information is collected.
It's unclear if Rutherford's bills will gain any traction in the Legislature. There are many Republicans across the aisle from Rutherford who strongly support privacy rights but many law enforcement agencies see the devices as powerful tools for fighting crime.
Rutherford, a defense attorney and a proponent of civil liberties, believes there aren't enough checks in place to ensure the technology isn't being abused. He points out that police currently don't have to seek a warrant from a judge to use such technology in an investigation.
"Our rights are being eroded and we don't even know it," Rutherford said. "Privacy, freedom, the things that are most important to Americans and South Carolinians."
Rutherford, a state lawmaker of 19 years, understands that there can be legitimate uses for some of the technology. In 2017, for instance, Charleston police used their database of license plate information taken from automatic readers to track down a man involved in a deadly shooting.
Many local police agencies in South Carolina use the license plate readers. They can be seen on the back of police cruisers and over intersections and stretches of highway. Folly Beach installed the cameras in 2017 so that they collect data on every car that drives onto the island.
All of this raises serious questions for Rutherford: How many cameras are there in the state? Where is the data from the cameras collected and stored? Who has access to that data? How long is the data kept? Is the data sold to third parties or shared with the federal government?
The legislation Rutherford proposed would limit the storing of license plate data to 90 days and would ban state and local police agencies from sharing or selling the data.
As for the cell site simulators, Rutherford wants a complete ban on the technology in South Carolina, though he has been unable to determine if any police agencies are actually using the tool.
"Same thing. Same concept," Rutherford said. "The government should have to let people know that they are stealing their data, their cell phone information. People don't even realize with how fast technology is moving and what they are giving up."