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.