- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Maryland agency collected more than 85 million pictures of license plates last year, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The pictures were taken by devices called automatic license plate readers, which scan and record tag numbers on passing vehicles more quickly than an officer can.
The ACLU released the report July 17 after submitting information requests last year to almost 600 law enforcement agencies in 38 states, including Maryland. About 300 agencies provided information for the report.
License plate readers scan license plates on passing vehicles to check them against a “hot list” for things such as missing persons and reports of stolen vehicles. In some jurisdictions, police store the license plate images for possible use in future investigations, but some organizations, including the ACLU, have voiced concern that the data could be misused by officials who want to track people’s movements.
In addition to using data locally, about three-fourths of law enforcement agencies in the state also share their data with the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, according to the ACLU report. The center collected more than 85 million such records in 2012.
Charles County has 10 plate readers. Information from those readers is downloaded to a secure server every 15 minutes, and according to information from the sheriff’s office, the information is accessible to a limited amount of people who have specific training on how to access it.
The plate readers have been active since 2010.
In January through May 2012, the Maryland center collected more than 29 million license plate reads, according to the report. Of those, about 1 in every 50 returned a hit on the hot list. Of those hits, 97 percent were for suspended or revoked registration or a violation of the state’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program, the report said.
Montgomery County police adopted a policy in January that calls for auditing data files “on a regular basis” and purging information that cannot be used for present or future law enforcement purposes, although the policy does not specify how often it will be audited. The department currently erases all data after a year, Cpl. Kevin Marston said.
While there is a policy in place for the Charles County readers that defines the program and governs its use, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Timko said that as the department begins to switch to a new server, the policy will be reviewed to determine whether an expiration time for the information is necessary.
The ACLU’s report on license plate readers is online at aclu.org/plates.
Staff writer Gretchen Phillips contributed to this report.