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Maryland's License Plate Surveillance Program Triggers Privacy Concerns

There are more than 400 license plate scanners across the state.

License plate reader (Credit: Westchester Patch)
License plate reader (Credit: Westchester Patch)

By Patrick Farrell, CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Each day across the state, hundreds of thousands of motorists’ license plates are recorded, stamped with location and time, and disseminated to various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies—sometimes to be retained indefinitely.

While local police departments throughout Maryland have developed agency-specific policies for the retention of this data, state and federal data "fusion centers" are collecting this same information, oftentimes imposing retention policies that conflict with those of the local agencies, raising concerns regarding the privacy of citizens.

In 2012, law enforcement agencies in Maryland collected 85 million license plate records through mounted police cameras, stationary highway cameras, and other surveillance methods utilizing license plate recognition technology, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Of the 29 million plates recorded from January to May of that same year, only 0.2 percent—about 1 in 500—were associated with a crime, suspicion of a crime, or minor registration issues.

Of that 0.2 percent, a staggering 97 percent were related to revoked registration or violation of Maryland’s Vehicle Emission Inspection Program, according to law enforcement documents obtained by the ACLU through a public records request.

In simpler terms, for every million plate reads in Maryland, only 47 were potentially associated with more serious crimes these recording systems were designed to prevent—including locating stolen vehicles and identifying persons of interest.  The rest of the matched reads, known as “hits,” were simple, non-violent violations.

Last month, Maryland legislators introduced a bipartisan proposal calling for limitations on state law enforcement's ability to track citizens through these systems of license plate surveillance.  

“We want to make sure that the [plate recognition technology] is used to solve crimes, but not to extend the reach of big brother,” Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said.

Along with Raskin, Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, will help to lead the push behind the legislation, in addition to three other bills aimed to protect civilian privacy in regards to email, cellular phone, and drone surveillance.

“We need to know how long is too long to keep that data,” Shank said, citing the potential to use the data for “nefarious purposes.”

If passed, license plate records unrelated to ongoing police investigations would be terminated after a maximum of 90 days in both local and state run agencies.

License plate information is currently recorded throughout the state by a total of 411 license plate scanners equipped with automated license plate recognition technology.  Of the 411 scanners, 307 are mobile—mounted onto police cruisers— and 104 are fixed cameras, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, coordinator of Maryland’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council.

This marks an increase from 2011, when Maryland law enforcement recorded a total of 295 license plate readers—242 mobile, 53 fixed—throughout the state.

Of the 411 cameras currently in operation throughout the state, around three quarters of the devices are networked through the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, also referred to as the "fusion center."

The fusion center was established by the Maryland Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council in 2003 “to provide analytical support for all federal, state, and local agencies.”

A total of 68 police agencies throughout Maryland currently utilize the automated license plate readers, and 55 of these agencies feed their data into the fusion center.  In December 2011, 32 agencies were linked to the fusion center, suggesting the network’s outreach is growing.

As agencies delete their data, the records oftentimes live on in even larger databases. These pools of data can be statewide—such as in the Maryland fusion center—or in databases shared between states, such as in the National Capital License Plate Recognition Project, which compiles data from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

An example of this can be seen in Greenbelt, where department retention times of the Greenbelt Police Department conflict with the retention times of the state and federal agencies to which the department feeds its data.

While Greenbelt police will store license plate LPR data unrelated to criminal investigations for a maximum of 30 days, that same data would remain available to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center for up to a year.

In the case of the National Capital Region project, actual retention times for data are unknown, and other agencies that obtain data from this regional database can then hold the data indefinitely, according to the ACLU.

Due to the lack of regulation on these retention policies, and the ability of local, state, and federal agencies to network and share data, many believe license plate surveillance introduces vast potential for abuse.

Over time, a log of license plate records could theoretically be pieced together like a puzzle, tracking the movement of citizens both within and outside of Maryland.

Eisenberg, the coordinator of Maryland’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council which oversees the fusion center, said the data is secure and only accessible for investigations.

“This data is hosted on a standalone server… no one can dive into it… there is no data-mining, and [the data] can only be accessed by a legitimate law enforcement officer for a legitimate reason,” he said.

Eisenberg noted that the fusion center’s one-year retention limit was decided on after consultation with various other government agencies.

Currently, a subpoena is not required for law enforcement officers to access license plate records.

Sarah Love, spokeswoman for ACLU Maryland, said that the problem lies in this ambiguity.  

“The concern is that [data procedures] are not quantified… just a policy—and we’re glad they have it—but we’ve already seen abuse with police spying,” Love said. “We need to make sure these policies have quantified, strict regulations.”

Last year it was revealed that the Virginia State Police used license plate readers to track attendees at routine political rallies in 2008 and 2009.  

“I’m sure everyone has the best intentions, but people are people, and we see abuse,” Love said.

Only six states—California, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Arkansas, and Utah—currently have laws regulating the use of license plate readers and data retention.

Maryland will join Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in weighing legislation regulating license plate readers this year.

In June 2010, Gov. O’Malley announced the creation of a committee to review strategies for constructing a statewide plan, which ultimately led to a $2 million federal grant to purchase more units in order to further the fusion center’s reach—a move that solidified Maryland as the first state in the nation to enact a statewide network of license plate readers.

macgeek February 17, 2014 at 11:41 AM
total invasion of privacy in my view. in order to maybe catch a few bad guys, their monitoring everyone without just cause. its an abuse of power.
Bryan Harz February 17, 2014 at 11:58 AM
Agreed. I knew they were out there on police cars so officers would know who's around them, but had no idea they were capturing time & location data and uploading to databases that states share. I'm not worried as I have nothing to hide, but it's still very Big Creepy Brother.
Skye Anderson February 17, 2014 at 01:35 PM
Is privacy expected in public?
Bryan Harz February 17, 2014 at 03:32 PM
While in my car? Yes. If I'm doing something illegal then I'd expect to be pulled over and questioned.
Jessie Grey February 17, 2014 at 08:31 PM
In America, you are guaranteed the expectation of privacy no matter where you were: be it hiding in a closet or walking down a city street your 4th Amendment rights are the same. When some fat cop cavalierly opens his pighole about how I have "no expectation of privacy" he can take his ham sandwich widened rear back to Nazi Germany.
Richard February 18, 2014 at 06:57 AM
Apparently, this license plate monitoring program is actually run by the NSA and with access given to states and local agencies. Seems like an awful lot of time effort to catch a few criminals. More creep towards Big Brother is you ask me.
Anna February 18, 2014 at 09:12 AM
The NSA has more than enough information on we the people. Good to see our legislators are trying to put some controls on this overbearing information accumulation.
John Graham February 18, 2014 at 09:57 AM
My concern would be the response time of the queries made by the scanning system, meaning that if they scanned a license plate and received a response quickly, then they are working in the real time, versus scanning data and storing it for later processing and correlation, where I feel is a violation of American citizens privacy. As much as I feel that we should do what we can do thwart another terrorist attack on American soil, surveillance of this scale violates the Constitution and thus unlawful. If the Government expects it citizens to follow the laws, so should they. If they do not like the law, change the law, legally, but until then, follow the law. There is no grey area in this. Tracking the whereabouts of random Americans is warrantless surveillance and thus crosses the line, plain and simple
Kolo Jezdec February 18, 2014 at 07:30 PM
Jessie Gray: Not sure what you mean by an expectation of privacy. If you mean that you cannot be searched or detained w/o probable cause, you are certainly correct. If you mean that you cannot be photographed, you are incorrect. It may sound obvious, but you have little to no privacy when you are in public. When you are in a public place — whether walking down the sidewalk, shopping in a store, sitting in a restaurant or in the park — your actions, movements, and conversations are knowingly exposed to the public. That means the police can follow you around in public and observe your activities, see what you are carrying or to whom you are talking, sit next to you or behind you and listen to your conversations — all without a warrant. You cannot necessarily expect Fourth Amendment protection when you’re in a public place, even if you think you are alone. Also, always keep in mind that whatever you expose to the public isn’t protected. So, if you’re in a coffee shop using your laptop and an FBI agent sitting at the next table sees what you are writing in an email, or if you open your backpack and the FBI agent can see what’s inside, the Fourth Amendment won’t protect you.
Richard February 18, 2014 at 07:58 PM
You are correct Kolo, regarding what is in plain view. The problem here is this license plate program is one piece of the larger picture whether it be following us in public, spying on us from the sky, or monitoring our phone calls and other electronic activity. I grew up in the cold war and it was rammed down our throats how bad the Soviets and their eastern bloc allies were, especially with the constant watching of it citizens by the likes of the KGB and the East German Stazi. Now we are going down the same pathway were the citizens are being watched by the government claiming to protect us from terrorism. But in reality, the mission always changes and it goes from protecting the citizens to controlling them. One might say, "I have nothing to hide." The response is, "No one is a perfect citizen."
Kolo Jezdec February 18, 2014 at 07:59 PM
Mr. Graham, no warrant is required for surveillance in public places. If a lawful vantage point exists, a warrant is not required to conduct visual surveillance of people, places, and things in plain view (see Florida v. Riley (1989) 488 U.S. 445, 449 [“As a general proposition, the police may see what may be seen from a public vantage point where they have a right to be.”]) A warrant is certainly not required to conduct live or recorded video surveillance of people in public places. (see U.S. v. Jackson, (10th Cir. 2000) 213 F.3d 1269) Also, a warrant is not required to follow a vehicle on public streets by means of an electronic tracking device, whether conventional or GPS. This is because a person’s travels on streets and highways are exposed to public view (See Cardwell v. Lewis (1974) 417 U.S. 583, 590-1 and U.S. v. Berry (D. Maryland 2004) 300 F.Supp.2d 366, 367-8) Not sure what you mean by tracking the whereabouts of random Americans. And always keep in mind that you do not have to have committed a crime to be arrested and charged.
Richard February 18, 2014 at 08:05 PM
Not true about using a GPS placed on an individual's car. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-1259.pdf
Skye Anderson February 18, 2014 at 08:15 PM
I love this discussion for its politeness and facts - not always the case for Patch comments. And I love the vocabulary - not interspersed with name-calling and four-letter words. Thanks, all!
Kolo Jezdec February 18, 2014 at 08:18 PM
In this case, the agents obtained a warrant, but they did not comply with two of the warrant’s restrictions: They did not install the GPS device within the 10-day period required by the terms of the warrant and by Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 41(e)(2)(B)(i), and they did not install theGPS device within the District of Columbia, as required by the termsof the warrant and by 18 U. S. C. §3117(a) and Rule 41(b)(4).
Richard February 18, 2014 at 10:37 PM
Regardless, you need a warrant. The police cannot just randomly place a tracking device on someone's car. All searches by the police with or without a warrant need "Probable cause". The reasoning behind this is the intrusion upon private property (the vehicle). To follow the vehicle without entering it is not an intrusion, and therefore no warrant would be required. The interesting result of the case is that the FBI had to go retrieve all those tracking devices, but to do so they had to notify the owner because going back and retrieving them without a warrant was repeating the violation.
Kolo Jezdec February 19, 2014 at 06:19 AM
Richard, you are right about the warrant. My precedents predated the ruling you cited. Since many new cars are equipped with GPS (and even a computer that tracks speed and such), it will be interesting to see how the use of those by the government fits within the 4th amendment.
Richard February 19, 2014 at 06:55 AM
I see, but those systems will be used like black boxes on a airplane and would accessed after the fact, in which a warrant can be obtained. I do not believe they can be accessed remotely to track in real time, although it will probably happen soon. Our smart phones already have that capability, so the police might as well skip the car entirely and just track the phone user. Eric Snowden has shown us that, and that goes back to the original discussion, that the government is overstepping it's bounds and trust with the people. Again, I ask everyone, isn't this why we opposed the Soviets and their allies?
Kolo Jezdec February 19, 2014 at 10:38 AM
Actually, Ford just announced (and then quickly retracted) that their 2014 vehicles have the capability of being tracked in real time, including the speed of the vehicle. One would assume that the government would need a court order for access to this capability, but in today's world such an assumption may be a dream. Kind of off topic, but I think we opposed the Soviet Union because their presence allowed the almost unrestrained growth of the military-industrial era, and with it a growth in government power and influence. As someone who was on the ground in Vietnam (as a Dustoff medic, so in the air as well), the Cold War felt very warm to me. Thanks for the discussion. Always appreciate someone making me think on things...

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