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Little Known Agency Keeps Vital Records

Even some state legislators claim ignorance on subject (First in a series)

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Published on: Thursday, January 31, 2013

By Christa Puccio and Holden Wilen

ANNAPOLIS – According to at least one state legislator, a little known state agency is signaling the end of privacy for Maryland residents. State Sen. Karen Montgomery calls the agency, “just the tip of the iceberg.”

A shadow agency in Maryland is collecting information from 371 automatic license plate readers (ALPR) around the state, retaining the information for at least a year, sharing the information with law enforcement agencies across the country, including the FBI, and using state funded law enforcement agencies’ money, state grants and personnel to do so.

And just about no one knows the agency exists. The agency is called the Maryland Coordination and Collaboration Center, also known as MCAC.  

“Maryland is proudly the only state that has networked most, but not all, of the license plate information in the state for efficiency,” said Harvey Eisenberg, assistant U.S. Attorney, chief of the National Security Section and coordinator of the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council of Maryland (ATAC).  “Other states have individual departments store it, but they don’t speak to each other and that’s a terrible loss of information in a law enforcement or public safety situation.”

But not everyone is happy with MCAC, its secrecy or the job the agency is doing for the state. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to shed light on how the database MCAC compiles is used and where it eventually goes.  “What we don’t know is if the agency itself is keeping them for a year and if the agency isn’t sharing them with anyone then we know that they’re probably being destroyed after a year.  However, if there’s a regional database or federal database that that information is going into, that just because the local folks are getting rid of it after a year doesn’t mean whoever else is keeping that regional or federal database is also getting rid of it after a year.  We don’t know the answer to that, that’s some of what we’re trying to find out.  That’s why we filed the suits, to find out that information,” said Allie Bohm of the ACLU.  

The dealings of MCAC recently came to light following a query from Rockville City Councilman Thomas Moore who is seeking to limit the amount of time that information can be held by the government.

“A balance has to be drawn,” Moore said between the legitimate use of the information by law enforcement and the people’s right to privacy.

A number of state legislators in the Montgomery County delegation said they didn’t even know MCAC existed and while state Senator Brian Frosh said he did know about it, he also said he didn’t know “much more than that.”

That sentiment was echoed across the state from a wide variety of legislators who had no idea what MCAC is, or what it does. State Sen. Karen Montgomery says, “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.We’ve long since lost our privacy.”

According to its charter, “MCAC was established as a model facility for the analysis and dissemination of information in statewide support of law enforcement, public health and welfare, public safety and homeland security.  It is one of the four components of the ATAC.   The primary function of the MCAC is to provide analytical support for all federal, state and local agencies involved in law enforcement, public health and welfare, public safety and homeland security in Maryland.  It is meant to provide strategic analysis to better focus the investigative activities being conducted by law enforcement agencies within the state and to better enable public health and safety agencies to perform their important protective functions.  By design, the center is not an investigative body, but is meant to address serious analytical deficiencies in the state.  In addition, the Center, through its Watch Division, enables public and private entities within our state more efficiently to receive and to disseminate critical information to other similar entities established by other states, as well as with any national centers created by the federal government, such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), the DHS National Operations Center (NOX) and the FBI’s CT Watch.”

According to Eisenberg, MCAC started out as TIPS in 2003, which is what drivers see on local highway signs – “Call 1-800-492-TIPS report suspicious activity.”  The center evolved from there to collecting information from law enforcement agencies, including license plate data around the state.

 “[ALPR] are not just on police vehicles, they’re on police vehicles and they’re also on fixed locations around Maryland,” said Eisenberg.  “They’re located at strategic points around the state that we don’t disclose those points usually for protection of critical infrastructure and/or other strategic reasons that are determined by other law enforcement agencies and the FBI.  There’s also information in there that we will use for counter-terrorism reason.  Now, I will only speak generally that’s as much as I can go into on that, but you can probably imagine there’s a good reason to know about certain people where there’s driving through our state or into a piece of critical infrastructure or a pattern that may develop so we can act on that.”

According to Eisenberg, Maryland is the only state with a statewide coordination and analysis center.  “Maryland has been in a forefront of so many initiatives,” said Eisenberg.  “The MCAC itself was in the forefront of setting up what was then not even called a fusion center when it was set up in 2003.  Maryland has just been very forward leaning in a lot of areas and this is just one example.  In a time of dwindling resources, you have to be more efficient too.”

That strive for centralization of information and efficiency is playing itself out in a variety of ways. Next week The Sentinel will outline who participates in MCAC, what information is provided and what other local, state and federal officials are concerned about in regards to protecting your privacy.

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