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State legislators lament loss of privacy

Little-known agency keeps personal records (second in a series)

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MCAC Photo by Christa Puccio

MCAC Photo by Christa Puccio

Published on: Thursday, February 07, 2013

By Christa Puccio and Holden Wilen

ANNAPOLIS – Some state politicians say we’ve reached a tipping point and “we’ve long since lost our privacy,”  Following last week’s article in The Sentinel on the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC).

 Sen. Karen Montgomery said she thinks the MCAC is only the “tip of the iceberg.”

“I think in the name of national security we have continued to surrender our privacy and I think it’s up to the American public to decide what the toss-up is,” said Montgomery.  “How much of their privacy are they willing to give up in exchange for a seemingly safer society?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I think the American public needs to be aware of [MCAC] which its overall viewpoint is supposed to be helpful and save us from idiots blowing up things like the World Trade Center and plowing planes into the Pentagon. What are we giving up in exchange? I think that’s the question that needs to be asked.”

According to the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Chief of the National Security Section and Coordinator of the Anti-Terrorism Council of Maryland (ATAC) Harvey Eisenberg describes MCAC as “Basically it’s a switchboard, or a clearing house. It receives information from the public or other fusion centers or law enforcement agencies, and it quickly and effectively passes it on to those that need to know it. That’s the whole purpose of setting up a fusion center.”

The Sentinel began this series following the revelation Rockville City Councilman Tom Moore wants limits imposed on how long the state can keep information gathered from police cars using automatic license plate readers.

Eisenberg said there are 371 automatic license plate readers in the state, about two thirds of which are mobile on police vehicles and the remaining readers are planted at fixed locations.  The information collected by the readers is sent electronically to MCAC’s “secure server.”  “There are thousands of thousands of reads around the state each day,” said Eisenberg.  “It’s a secure server,” said Eisenberg.  “It’s a secure server.  It’s not networked – it’s standalone and it has security protections in it. No one else can access it unless you have proper passage code words, passwords rather.”

According to Eisenberg, MCAC’s privacy policy allows the agency to keep records of the license plate reads for up to a year, unless someone’s established and documented a law enforcement need, and then it’s expunged.  “Right now we think that’s a reasonable timeframe and honestly we just asked a lot of people what they thought they needed,” said Eisenberg.  

Eisenberg said he asked “a lot” of police departments what their law enforcement needs are in terms of how long to keep the data for, but MCAC did not ask the general public or elected officials.  “They wouldn’t probably have much to bring to the table from a law enforcement need perspective or a public safety need perspective,” said Eisenberg.

Eisenberg said he doesn’t see MCAC’s functions as infringing on citizens’ privacy rights.  “I see it as an effective law enforcement tool similar to many others that are deployed in this post 9/11 era,” he said.

Montgomery disagreed.  “I think the minute we all began having internet access, things like Facebook and all the modes of social interaction, that we willingly or not have surrendered our privacy.”

Another elected official commented on the topic.  “I do think there’s always a balance we have of course, balancing everyone’s privacy and security. Neither extreme is the right answer,” said Maryland State Delegate Anne Kaiser.  “I do know there’s a rationale for law enforcement to get that type of information. A lot of things have to be balanced.”

According to Eisenberg, a law enforcement agency is the only agency that can get access to MCAC’s data and they have to document the need “case by case.”  He said in Dec. 2012, 165 requests were made.  Other than that, a civilian can only request his or her own license plate information received by MCAC.

MCAC operates on donated personnel from law enforcement agencies, state grant money and the FBI paying for the facility’s rent, which all equates to about $1 million per year, according to Eisenberg.  “We could not operate unless law enforcement agencies and other agencies provided their people free of charge for the good of the state and for the good of their agencies,” said Eisenberg.  “At all times the three main managers of MCAC are detailees from a federal, a state, and a local agency.  That’s how we’ve set it up so everybody has some say in the action and the management from each of the agency’s or each of the levels of government rather. Right now the state police has hired and detailed an executive director to be the overall person in charge of the MCAC. The FBI has a supervisory special agent who has a background in intelligence and analysis.”

The executive director of MCAC is David Engel who was donated from the Maryland State Police Department.  The two donated assistant directors of MCAC are FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dave Miller and Prince George’s County Police Department Major Marcos Zarragoitia.

NEXT WEEK: Information on the umbrella agency - Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council (ATAC) – who runs ATAC, its members, and what they do.

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