ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The American Civil Liberties Union is asking police agencies nationwide for details on how they store data captured by automatic license plate readers, which authorities say help fight crime and terrorism and are not used to stockpile information on all drivers.
A top concern, the ACLU says, is how long the location and movements of people are kept on file after cameras mounted on patrol cars or along roads on telephone poles and bridges photograph license plates. ACLU affiliates in 38 states and the District of Columbia have joined in asking for the information.
“The American people have a right to know whether our police departments are using these tools in a limited and responsible manner, or whether they are keeping records of our movements for months or years for no good reason,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
In Maryland, state police keep data from the license plate readers for 24 hours, said Greg Shipley, a police spokesman. Then, the information is forwarded to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, or “fusion center,” where local, state and federal authorities work side by side to root out terrorism plots. The data can be kept there for up to a year unless a law enforcement need has been demonstrated in a legal case, said Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, coordinator of the Maryland Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, which oversees the fusion center.
Officials are trying to strike a legitimate balance in preserving information, and storing the data is no different than preserving evidence in other legal cases, Eisenberg said.
“It’s just a much more efficient and effective way to do that,” Eisenberg said.
The ACLU said that while the use of the technology is growing around the nation, too little is known about how long the data can be stored.
“The concern is about `Big Brother’ and police potentially maintaining large databases about where innocent citizens drive every day,” said Dane Claussen, executive director the ACLU office in Las Vegas.
The ACLU of Nevada is filing requests seeking records from some of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies, including Las Vegas Metropolitan, Reno and Henderson city police and the Washoe County sheriff, Claussen said.
In Henderson, outside Las Vegas, city police reported success shortly after installing mobile license plate scanners in several marked patrol vehicles in June 2011. The first case involved an officer driving on a busy boulevard identifying a Chevrolet pickup as having been reported stolen in Las Vegas.
Henderson police spokesman Keith Paul said Monday his agency had not yet been asked by the ACLU for information.
In New Mexico, license plate readers are installed at the five points of entry where commercial truckers stop when they pass through the state. The readers check the truck’s license plate and tap into government crime, safety and tax databases.
State inspectors are provided with information on whether the license plate is wanted in connection with a crime, according to New Mexico State Police Chief Robert Shilling. Inspectors also get real-time reports on the safety records of the trucking company and the individual truck, and whether state road taxes have been paid. The information is retained by the Department of Public Safety for six months and then deleted, Shilling said.
“We don’t use it except for criminal justice purposes,” said Shilling.
Vernon Herron, a retired commander of the Maryland State Police, said law enforcement’s focus is on solving crimes, not storing piles of data for the sake of compiling information. The cameras have been instrumental in significant reductions in auto thefts and locating missing children through Amber Alerts, said Herron, who is now a policy analyst for the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
“It has been very successful in returning kids to their families,” said Herron, who worked for 27 years with the Maryland State Police and as public safety director for Prince George’s County. In that county, auto thefts were cut by about 40 percent in two years with the help of the cameras.