New technology has increased police officers’ ability to scan the roadways for criminals and missing persons, with cameras and computers able to process information far quicker than a human being. The ability to collect vast quantities of data on citizens has opened new possibilities for investigators — and new concerns about privacy.
“(There is) a lot of uncharted territory for us,” said Russ Hamill, Montgomery County’s assistant police chief.
Rockville City Police have three automatic license plate readers, or LPRs, that scan plates on passing cars to check for suspended licenses, stolen cars, Amber Alerts and other vehicles police are looking for. Rockville’s data, together with data from other law enforcement agencies, goes into a server operated by Montgomery County police, then on to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, a joint initiative of partners in federal, state and local agencies.
Rockville’s LPRs automatically delete their data after 30 days, but some privacy advocates are worried about what happens to the information when it is stored or leaves the city’s control.
Ginger McCall, open government director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group interested in civil liberties issues, said Rockville should set limits on data storage and retention before LPRs become widely used.
“Now is really the time to set good limits, while you only have three of these units instead of 50,” she said.
McCall spoke during a panel discussion on LPRs and data retention at a March 11 Rockville Mayor and Council meeting.
Hamill said saving LPR data can help investigators solve cases beyond pulling over vehicles. Officers can search old data to help them recover stolen cars, find fugitives, support alibis or close old cases, he said. If the department dumped old data, it might miss out on closing those cases, he said.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Hamill said.
Some privacy advocates said the potential for data to be used if it is kept indefinitely outweighs the few cases it could close.
“There’s no need to permanently store any data,” said David Rocah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “... If there’s not a hit, in my view, there is no reason to keep the information.”
Rocah said he is concerned that as LPRs proliferate, data will be aggregated and possibly misused.
“You get an ever-more detailed portrait of our movements around Maryland,” he said.
The Montgomery County Police Department recently adopted a new data retention policy, which went into effect Jan. 1. The policy says the department will audit data files “on a regular basis” and purge information that is no longer relevant and cannot be utilized for present or future law enforcement purposes, but does not specify how often the data will be audited or who will determine whether it is still useful for law enforcement purposes.
Hamill said the department now erases all data after a year.
MCPD would like to keep the records longer, archived offline on a storage shelf, so officers can use it for investigations, but the department does not yet have the technology to store it offline with limited access.
“Right now, it’s either keep it or throw it away,” Lt. A.H. Felsen said.
Given the options of tossing the old data or storing it in a database that would be easier to access than the department would like, Hamill said MCPD has chosen to toss it. He said that demonstrates the department’s commitment to protecting citizens’ privacy.
Rockville Councilman Tom Moore, who asked to have the discussion, said he’s not worried about police officers misusing the data.
“I’m worried about the Montgomery County Council,” he said. Moore said he is concerned about how future lawmakers might use the data, even if police just want to leave it on a shelf.
After the meeting, he told The Gazette that Rockville has a range of options for its data retention and sharing policy. The city could continue sharing its data with the county as it does now, it could stop sharing its data with any other law enforcement agencies or it could pick a course somewhere in between, Moore said.
A few options might include lobbying the county to change its policy, asking the county to tag and delete Rockville’s information after a set time period, or bypassing the county and sending data straight to the state, he said.
Moore said the Mayor and Council have asked Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk to look more into the issue and recommend whether Rockville should change its policy. After hearing the discussion about how law enforcement officials could use the data and how someone could potentially abuse it, Moore said the Mayor and Council are not close to making a decision on whether to change Rockville’s policy.
“It’s a balancing act, and the police have their job to protect people and uphold the Constitution,” Moore said. “Our job is to set the policy that balances their job against our job, which is to protect the quality of life. ... Will we put up with a few investigations that may not be solved because we don’t have the data (in exchange for) the benefit of the government not tracking everyone everywhere they go?”
Moore said a town hall meeting on LPR data retention issue is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 20 in the Black-Eyed Susan Conference Room in City Hall.