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Councilman wants ALPR limits

Claims license plate information could be stored “indefinitely”

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Published on: Thursday, January 24, 2013

By Christa Puccio

ROCKVILLE – At least one city councilmember here wants strict limits on how long police can keep information obtained from automatic license plate readers.

Currently three police cars in the city have automatic license plate readers (ALPR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also jumped into the debate regarding the use.

“A balance has to be drawn between the legitimate police use of this information and the right of the people to not have the government track them wherever they go,” said Tom Moore, a Rockville City councilmember.

Corporal Ken Matney, City of Rockville Police Department, explained the ALPR on police vehicles are “basically high-speed cameras that are mounted to the trunk of the car and they will take pictures or they will recognize tags at speeds up to 140 miles per hour, so 70 miles per hour coming towards each other.  They take that, compare it to data that is provided every morning and evening by the MVA (Maryland Vehicle Administration) and compares it to a list of tags that has issues.”

Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk further explained that the list that the MVA provides “would be tags that are suspended, vehicles that are stolen, or people with suspended licenses or wanted for a criminal offense, things like that.  So the ones that are supplied every day are tags that are outside the norm, it will spot those tags and just as important, it will spot a car registered to someone who shouldn’t be driving for whatever reason.”

After the reader detects that a license plate matches a license plate on the MVA list, Matney said “what comes up on the computer is, it’s not real time, so what we realize using the system is it recognizes the tag, and it will pop up on the screen and tell the officer driving that car what is wrong with that tag – what the violation on that tag is.  Then, the officer has to run that through MVA to verify it because they can’t just act on license plate reader alone because the data is only updated twice per day.  He can either run it in the car or he can run it over the air, which means calling dispatch to do it.”

David Rocah, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said, “We do not object to using ALPR technology to instantly compare plates against external databases in real time, such as databases of stolen or wanted vehicles, and alerting officers if there is a match.  But the technology also allows for the ALPR data to be stored indefinitely, in ever growing databases, creating an increasingly comprehensive picture of our locations and movements, which raises significant privacy concerns. That is precisely what Maryland seems to be claiming the state is doing.”

Matney said the City of Rockville does not keep the information that the reader takes in besides a plate matching the MVA list.  “We don’t retain it, it goes straight to the county and then to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC),” said Matney.  “It’s put into a database that is a secure database that is not freely accessible.  It has to be for criminal justice purposes.  It goes into an ongoing investigative database and it just sits there.  The time GPS coordinates and the plate number go into the database.  It stays in MCAC for one year unless it’s in a current ongoing investigation and special exceptions are made for those types of tags.”

According to the MCAC’s website, “Less than one week after the horrific tragedy on September 11th 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed every U.S. Attorney's Office to start an Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council (ATAC).  Shortly thereafter, the Maryland Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council formed one of the first Fusion Centers in the United States to combine information sharing and analysis. That center became known as the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC).  Today, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center coordinates the efforts of federal, state and local agencies to gather, analyze, and share intelligence information with law enforcement, public health, and emergency responder personnel.”

Moore disagrees with the length of time that MCAC can retain the license plate information it receives from the Rockville City Police Department.  “I don’t know exactly how long we should retain the information, but I would say forever is too long,” said Tom Moore, a Rockville City councilmember.  “Probably a year is too long.  Short of that, I’m not sure exactly what it should be.”

MCAC’s “privacy” policy states “The MCAC, and participating agencies, employees, and users will comply with all applicable laws and regulations protecting individuals’ and organizations’ privacy rights, civil rights, and civil liberties in the use, analysis, retention, destruction, sharing and disclosure of protected information received and stored within the MCAC.  In sharing and disclosing such information, the MCAC also will take reasonable measures to ensure the sources and methods of information gathering are adequately protected.  The MCAC has adopted internal operating policies and procedures that are in compliance with applicable law protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

“It’s not the bad guys that I’m worried about with this information.  I’m worried about the good guys deciding ‘well we have this information so we have to use it,’” said Moore.   “All the technological limits are gone and what we need are policy limits.”

 The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) joined with ACLU affiliates in 38 states to send requests to local police departments and state agencies last July to seek information on how they use automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to track and record Americans' movements.  According to the ACLU of Maryland, Maryland has reported that there are more than 320 ALPRs being used and many are linked to (MCAC), Maryland's "fusion center," where the data is potentially stored indefinitely, creating an ever-growing database of our location and travel through the state.

“Thanks to our request, we already know that the data is retained there for at least a year, but it is unclear just how long individual police departments plan to keep it (or whether the centralized storage could expand),” said Rocah.  “Maryland needs legal protections to limit the collection, retention, and sharing of our travel information - and we need these rules right away.  As use of Automatic License Plate Readers expands, and as more and more data about our travels is stored over time, this system becomes a warrantless tracking tool and we, as Maryland residents, have a right to know what information has been recorded and stored about us.”

Another ACLU representative debated the ALPR topic.  "Automatic license plate readers make it possible for the police to track our location whenever we drive our cars and to store that information forever," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. “The American people have a right to know whether our police departments are using these tools in a limited and responsible manner, or whether they are keeping records of our movements for months or years for no good reason.”

According to the ACLU, Fusion Center “Partners” include: Annapolis Police Department, Anne Arundel County Police Department, Baltimore City Police Department, Baltimore County Police Department, Baltimore County Sheriff's Office, Charles County Sheriff's Office, Harford County Sheriff's Office, Howard County Police Department, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police, Maryland State Police, Maryland Transit Administration Police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, Montgomery County Police Department, Prince George's County Sheriff's Office, Prince George's County Police Department.

Agencies with known ALPR include Takoma Park Police Department and Bowie Police Department.   

Additional Police Departments With Over 50 Officers include, Calvert County Sheriff's Office, Carroll County Sheriff's Office, Cecil County Sheriff's Office, Frederick County Sheriff's Office, Frederick Police Department, Gaithersburg Police Department, Greenbelt Police Department, Hagerstown Police Department, Laurel Police Department, Ocean City Police Department, Rockville Police Department, Salisbury Police Department, St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office, Washington County Sheriff's Office, and Wicomico County Sheriff's Office.

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