Smile, you’re on camera.
Law enforcement agencies in Montgomery County have assembled an array of technology capable of monitoring our daily lives.
Police said newly-popular technology such as license plate readers is used to identify criminals, but privacy rights activists worry that in the absence of limitations, the data could be abused.
“They are tracking people — cars are just the instrument,” said Darian Unger, an assistant professor at the Howard University School of Business in Washington, D.C.
Unger also is chairman of Silver Spring’s Transportation/Pedestrian Safety Committee. The committee was in favor of speed cameras before the program was implemented 2007, but Unger has reservations about the widespread use of license plate readers.
“If it’s not controlled or regulated, its use could be unlimited,” he said.
Data collection in Montgomery County
There are 36 license plate readers mounted on squad cars in Montgomery County. Units photograph every plate within view, automatically comparing them against a list of plates wanted by police, such as for stolen vehicles.
Each reader can recognize more than 1,000 plates per hour, according to a 2007 report from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. That means police in the county could store more than 864,000 tags per day. Also generally stored are the date, time and location of the reading.
Opinions on data retention vary. While the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland recommends erasing any plate not sought by police within 24 hours, Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the county’s traffic division, prefers one year.
“With that being said, if information that we had in our possession was not available for the detective, then yes, it could affect the investigation,” Didone said. “However, I hope that we never find that out the hard way.”
There are no laws in Montgomery County that limit the amount of time data that can be maintained. Policies vary among departments.
Plates without hits are erased by state police within 24 hours, while Gaithersburg maintains data from its five units indefinitely.
The bulk of the license plate readers belong to the Montgomery County Police Department, which has 22 units. The department maintains data between one and two years, depending on storage capacity, Didone said.
The Rockville City Police Department does not know how long data from its three units is retained. The information feeds into the county police system, where, “it is theirs to do whatever wish,” said Cpl. Kenneth Matney.
Chevy Chase Village Police did not have a retention policy regarding its two license plate readers, but Chief John Fitzgerald promised to create one after discovering the oversight. He has since decided to purge data monthly.
Takoma Park police maintain data from its three units for 30 days, an increase approved by city council, said Chief Ronald Ricucci. Data previously had been erased at the end of each shift.
Takoma Park is one of the few departments in the county that maintains statistics for license plate readers, thanks to pressure from residents for limitations.
Between February and August 2011, police had about 1,700 hits, 541 citations, 15 arrests, recovered three stolen vehicles and three stolen tags.
“We’ve been very pleased with our results,” Ricucci said. “We’ve taken a lot of bad drivers off the road.”
Useful tool or invitation for abuse?
The primary use of license plate readers in the U.S. has been to detect and reduce auto theft, according to a 2010 report by George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
At the time the report was published, more than 50 percent of large police agencies and almost 10 percent of small departments were estimated to have acquired the technology. There are more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.
Despite enthusiasm from law enforcement for plate readers, studies in the U.S. and the United Kingdom found they are not a deterrent to crime. They had no effect on car theft and auto-related crime in Alexandria City and Fairfax County, according to the Mason report.
“Having used one, they find a lot of bad tags: People who aren’t paying for the registration, people who have gotten in trouble for not paying the insurance,” Matney said.
License plate readers can be a useful tool, but without standards, there is no assurance the program will remain narrowly focused on finding criminals, said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland.
“In fact, the authorities will inevitably seek to maintain records of people’s locations,” Curtis said. “Ultimately, we face the very real possibility that our every movement in an automobile will be tracked and recorded. This would represent an extremely serious reduction in the privacy Americans have always enjoyed, and should not be allowed to happen — especially without discussion or comment.”
Data retention is an issue the Montgomery County Council’s public safety committee soon will discuss with county police, said councilman Phil Andrews. He said the county should have a well thought out policy, but any changes would only apply to the county police department.
“They are clearly useful for law enforcement,” said Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg. “But there are reasonable concerns about privacy in terms of information in terms of the location of a car.”
Olde Towne Gaithersburg bears constant monitoring thanks to 11 surveillance cameras installed in October. The cameras cost about $140,000, funded mostly by a U.S. Department of Justice grant. Intended to prevent gang activity, the cameras have yet to capture any illegal activity, said Officer Dan Lane, a spokesman for the department.
The cameras are not monitored by a dedicated officer, but recorded data can be pulled after an incident occurs.
“We have not received any negative feedback on the issue from citizens,” Lane said. “The Gaithersburg Police Department does not monitor the day-to-day operations of a citizen and what they do, however the cameras are installed in a public place observing the public area.”
After a spate of burglaries in the Town of Chevy Chase, residents suggested cameras monitoring access points to the town, said Mayor David Lublin. It was an idea Capt. David Falcinelli, commander of the county police department’s 2nd District station, discouraged because of the cost of high resolution cameras.
Although a proposal for surveillance cameras was turned down by Takoma Park City Council a year-and-a-half ago, one could be forthcoming in Chevy Chase Village.
Fitzgerald recently met with a security contractor to discuss the feasibility of motion sensing technology, which would be used to alert officers to late night pedestrian and vehicular activity. He said the system could be a combination of smart cameras and blind motion sensors, or entirely blind motion sensors. There are no cost estimates.
“If it’s a sleepless, late-night dog walker, we’ll say hello and go about our business,” Fitzgerald said. “If it’s a prowler, we’ll greet them as well, and take appropriate action based on the facts as we find them.”
State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park does see a decline in privacy, but blamed government surveillance as much as social networks such as Facebook, where millions of users post photos of their friends and family every day.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said there was an understandable increase in government surveillance, but speculated that we are entering a phase where people want to recapture a sense of privacy.
“We should never allow the speed cameras to lower everyone’s resistance to total government surveillance of people at all times,” he said. “We do not want to establish the expectation that everything you do can be subject to government surveillance and recording. That does get right back into the Orwellian nightmare.”