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Uncovering License Plate Scanners: The Next Big Thing in Government Tracking

David Rocah,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Maryland
Kathryn Bendoraitis,
ACLU of Maryland
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August 3, 2012

Maryland may be positioned to lead the nation in tracking the location and movements of innocent people through Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs). That is why the ACLU of Maryland joined with ACLU affiliates in 38 other states to file public records requests seeking information about the law enforcement collection and retention of ALPR data. Maryland seems to be (or claims to be) one of the national leaders in the troubling centralized aggregation and storage of ALPR data, which raises significant privacy concerns.

It is important to note that the most effective uses of ALPR technology (and the ones most frequently touted by law enforcement proponents of the technology) – finding missing children, recovering stolen vehicles, locating fleeing assailants – require virtually no retention of the data. License plates are scanned, instantly run through an array of law enforcement databases, and the officer or monitor is notified of any matches.

If license plate scans, which are typically stamped with a location, time, and date, were used just for these purposes and deleted shortly thereafter, privacy concerns would be minimal to non-existent. After all, police can run license plates against these databases themselves. ALPR technology simply cuts down on the time and manpower required to perform these functions on a large scale.

The privacy issues arise with the retention of the information. A police officer will not forever remember the exact location and time of an innocent motorist’s travels. With ALPR technology, those details can be stored indefinitely, creating an ever-growing historical record of the daily comings and goings of every Marylander. As ALPRs become more ubiquitous and that record becomes longer and more detailed, it will become possible for the government to determine a person’s exact movements during any given time period.

Law enforcement officials in Maryland seem intent on building the type of comprehensive ALPR network and database that could create such a record. State officials report that there are more than 320 ALPRs deployed around Maryland, and since 2010 the state has doubled its investment in this technology by pouring more than $2 million in combined federal and state grants into the acquisition of new readers.

The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security has specifically touted the warehousing of our whereabouts through ALPR data at Maryland’s Coordination and Analysis Center, or “fusion center,” as the “first statewide networked LPR system of its kind in the nation.More than 140 plate readers across the state are currently linked to a central server at the fusion center, and the state hopes to one day connect all ALPRs to this growing monolith of personal data.

The Maryland fusion center, which in 2007 expanded its jurisdiction from terrorism-only to all crimes, houses 80 personnel from 27 different state, local, and federal agencies, and an enormous amount of information. This means that, in Maryland, storing information about people’s whereabouts at the fusion center is equivalent to sharing it (indeed, the entire purpose of fusion centers is to facilitate the sharing of information among law enforcement agencies). The center does have a “privacy” policy which purports to protect the privacy of individuals, but because it allows MCAC to store any information “routinely collected by public safety agencies,” it provides no meaningful protection at all. On the other hand, one might wonder whether the storage of ALPR data about thousands of individuals (none of whom are suspected of any crime) violates a separate provision of the MCAC privacy policy, which states that “The MCAC will only seek and/or retain information on individuals and organizations to corroborate and/or validate tip or lead information (including SAR information) or when there is reasonable suspicion that an identifiable individual or organization has committed a criminal offense or is planning criminal conduct or activity (including terrorism) that presents a threat to any individual, the community, or the nation, and the information is relevant to the criminal conduct or activity.”

Thanks to the public statements of MCAC officials in news stories covering our public records request, we already know that ALPR data submitted to MCAC is retained for a year, or longer if officials determine there is a “law enforcement” need.

People may ask why they should care that the government keeps records of their travels indefinitely, if their destinations are innocent and routine. One suggestion lies in the apparent hope that the data can be used to predict potential threats. The Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention suggests that ALPR technology should be used to support homeland security efforts by protecting the state from “individuals potentially intending to damage or disrupt” infrastructure. How ALPR data might be used to determine which drivers are “potentially intending” to cause “damage” or “disruptions” is not explained. However, it is not hard to imagine how innocent activities such as parking near certain religious institutions, driving to certain political events, or even driving past “critical infrastructure” points on a daily basis, could erroneously flag a motorist as someone “potentially intending” to do something harmful.

It is also not hard to imagine the government arguing that if one year of ALPR data can help “keep us safe,” won’t five or ten or twenty years make us even safer? And, indeed, one large police department in Maryland recently made just such an argument in articulating their plans to store ALPR data gathered in their county indefinitely: “If we just dump this information … 30 years from now, 25 years from now, the people that are going to be sitting in all our chairs, are they going to look to us as really committing a major folly?

The era of big government is supposedly over, but the era of big data is just beginning, and government agencies are collecting with fervor. The only thing that can stop this race towards mass, long-term ALPR data retention across the county is protective legislation, which currently exists only in New Hampshire and Maine. If Maryland, or any other state, is to be a leader in ALPR use, it should be because they are leading the nation in using technology responsibly and protecting the privacy of their citizens and visitors – not be because they lead the nation in storing and sharing detailed records of the whereabouts of innocent people.

While we wait for answers to our public records requests, the ACLU of Maryland is encouraging Marylanders to file their own public records requests with the Maryland fusion center, to find out what data has been compiled on their locations and movements in the state. More details, and a link to a template, can be found here.

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