Maryland license plate recognition networks prompt state, federal privacy concerns -- Gazette.Net


ANNAPOLIS — Each day across Maryland, 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 have decided how long to keep this data, state and federal data “fusion centers” are collecting the same information and keeping it for much longer, raising privacy concerns.

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,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park.

Sen. Christopher Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown is working with Raskin on that bill and three others aimed at protecting civilian privacy on email, cellphones 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 90 days in both local and state run agencies.

License-plate information is recorded throughout the state by 411 license-plate scanners equipped with automated recognition technology. Of those scanners, 307 are mobile — mounted on 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 had 295 license plate readers — 242 mobile, 53 fixed.

Of the 411 cameras, about three-quarters are networked through the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, also referred to as the “fusion center.”

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

Sixty-eight Maryland police agencies use automated license plate readers, and 55 feed data into the fusion center. In December 2011, thirty-two agencies were linked to the fusion center, suggesting the network’s outreach is growing.

As agencies delete data, records often live on in even larger databases.

For example, the Greenbelt Police Department stores license plate data unrelated to criminal investigations for a maximum of 30 days. However, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center will keep that data for up to a year.

The National Capital License Plate Recognition Project — which compiles data from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. — keeps data for an unknown length of time, according to the ACLU.

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

“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.

“[W]e’ve already seen abuse with police spying,” said Sarah Love, a spokeswoman for ACLU Maryland. “We need to make sure these policies have quantified, strict regulations.”