Thursday, February 16, 2012

Maryland Police Photograph Thousands of Cars Daily

Police in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the state have established a massive network of surveillance cameras and automated license plate readers which photograph and record data about thousands of motorists daily, most of which have committed no violation. The fact that the systems are under no oversight or regulation from the state has attracted concern from some civil liberties groups.

According to the Gazette, a single automated license plate reader can record 1000 plates per hour and the Montgomery County Police have the capability to store and track more than 864,000 tags per day along with the date, time, and location of the reading.  There are no laws limiting the amount of time data on innocent motorists can be retained.  According to the Gazette
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.
Policies for how long the data is stored vary widely. Gaithersburg retains their data indefinitely, while Rockville reported that they did not know how long their data was kept.  State police reportedly delete data after 24 hours.  Police state the devices are used to identify stolen vehicles, or vehicles with expired registration or insurance. However since the data is retained even if there is no current flag, this personally identifying information about the travels of individual motorists could be used for any other purpose weeks or months later.

The use of Surveillance cameras has also increased dramatically, with many cities deploying these in large numbers. The Gazette reports some concern over the lack of regulation over how such systems could be used and the lack of regulation:
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.”
Supporters of such systems and the retention of such data for long periods of time argue that there is no "expectation of privacy" in public places.  However one could ask whether we should have the "expectation" that everyone will be watched by government agencies at all times and our movements recorded indefinitely with no oversight, even if there is no probable cause for believing a violation of the law has taken place.

On the other hand, there have been multiple instances of motorists and other citizens detained or arrested for photographing police in public spaces.  In another recent instance, a lawsuit was filed claiming that police illegally seized and deleted video from a citizen who had photographed an arrest with his cell phone.