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High-speed license plate cameras spark privacy concerns as they help solve crimes

Chances are good that the police cruiser you drove past a day or two ago took pictures of your car.

If the police vehicle was equipped with a special high-speed camera, the device took a shot of your license plate and another of your auto in traffic.

There might have been dozens of other cars in your lane, too many for an ordinary camera to snap a picture of every one. But the police camera got them all. Even if your car was just parked at a curb, the camera would have grabbed that picture and recorded where and when it was taken.

The images and global-positioning data then went into a database regardless of whether any driver did something illegal. Officers might someday want to know more about your car, its past whereabouts and you.

Plate readers help police solve crimes, find suspects and exonerate defendants. They also record data on millions of Americans who have broken no law and are simply going about their daily travels. Erie County’s police agency shares a database with some 21 million plate scans.

Automatic license plate readers spark the question: How much should government know about you?

Consider:

• Local towns, villages and cities have allowed their police departments to seek money for plate readers but set no limits on their use. They instead look to police administrators to ensure the data is used only for law enforcement needs.

• Many police officials zealously guard the data and insist it is to be used only for legitimate criminal justice purposes. But not every officer follows every rule. In one exception involving motor vehicle data, officers in Minnesota looked up the driver’s license record of a female colleague hundreds of times, according to the Minneapolis newspaper City Pages.

• The vast majority of plates scanned and stored are never used by law enforcement. For example, of the 164,000 plates that police in the Hudson Valley community of Rhinebeck scanned over a three-month period, just eight were of interest in law enforcement matters, according to a study by the New York Civil Liberties Union. But the more a license plate is photographed, the greater the potential record of a person’s travels.

• In an effort to protect privacy, the vast majority of plate scans captured by Erie County’s police agencies – those that never trigger a “hit’’ – are held for one year and then purged. But an investigator who wants to go back further can turn to other databases.

“That’s awful,’’ said Daniel J. Ward, a lawyer living in Amherst who says Americans don’t surrender their right to privacy when they register an automobile.

“There is a distinction, I think, between police dealing with an immediate threat of a car that’s on a ‘hot sheet,’ say a stolen car, and surveilling people for the sake of surveillance,” he said. “That becomes in my mind a constitutional question and a population-control device.”

“Most people go from place to place using their automobiles,’’ Ward said. “The public’s right to have a reasonable expectation of privacy should be honored.”

Americans live in a surveillance state. They shop, dine out and pump gas with lenses trained on them. But the viewers of those pictures don’t always know your name. Cops and federal agents can swiftly link license plates to likely drivers because they have ready access to motor vehicle records. With the data, they can also make informed guesses about a citizen’s life because, as one vendor says, when you find a car, you typically find its owner less than 1,000 feet away.

If they want to, law enforcement officers can use plate scans to learn whether someone sees a psychiatrist, visits gun shows or attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Police can determine someone’s close associates, the political rallies they attend and even where they sleep at night.

“The police, by using license plate readers, are capturing information on everyone,’’ said Dave Maass, an investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks privacy issues in the digital age. “Not just stolen vehicles. Not just criminal suspects. But everyone.’’

Scanners everywhere

Remember when the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles came out with another license-plate design in 2009?

That wasn’t just to squeeze motorists for more money. State leaders wanted new plates that would be more easily read by automatic license plate readers, which many police forces were buying with grants from state and federal agencies.

Lawyers for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, which eventually provided some 500 readers around New York, had examined the legality of plate readers and found no constitutional issues. It’s legal to photograph in public, advocates argue, and plate readers do just that.

The readers have proven invaluable for law enforcement. They can look into a mass of traffic to find the lone plate on, say, a stolen or unregistered car. Police in California found a suspect in a gangland killing after plate readers revealed his regular haunts. Local police rushing to a reported shooting got the plates of cars driving away from the scene, giving them a pool of likely witnesses. A license-plate reader helped Town of Tonawanda Police find a homicide suspect when his vehicle was spotted parked in Buffalo.

The readers are placed above traffic, too. Buffalo Police in 2013 installed their first stationary camera above Broadway and Bailey Avenue. Another went up at Bailey and Kensington Avenue. The maker of Buffalo’s high-speed cameras says they can capture up to 1,800 plates a minute, day or night.

Like any technology, uses for plate readers are expanding. One of the largest providers of license plate readers, California-based Vigilant Solutions, offered police agencies in Texas free readers if they participated in a new venture. The police would carry credit-card and debit-card readers and demand payment on the spot from motorists whom the cameras identified as past due on court fines.

The driver would be inclined to pay up immediately or face a trip to jail. In return, Vigilant would take a 25 percent processing fee. One participant in the venture, the Texas city of Kyle, later dropped out when residents and City Council members raised concerns about fairness and privacy.

Another provider of plate readers, Xerox, suggests mounting its cameras on street sweepers, and the cameras would be able to immediately take a picture of illegally parked autos. Later, the picture would be included in a ticket mailed to the car’s owner.

Buffalo’s Parking Violations Bureau has plate readers on four of its trucks. The readers are programmed to spot the plates of persistent violators and scofflaws, said Kevin Helfer, who runs the Parking Violations Bureau.

Policy evolves

Assorted police agencies in Erie County have used plate scanners for about a decade. But only a year ago was an overarching policy completed on how long the data would be kept.

Ward, the local attorney, had read about plate readers and didn’t like what he learned. Their use was spreading, and local government leaders seemed to know little about them. To Ward, police departments here and across the country were engaged in one of the largest data-grabs ever seen.

Ward had been a county legislator and then Amherst town supervisor for four years, and he knew the Freedom of Information Law. Early in 2015, he peppered local police departments with Freedom of Information requests for scans of his own license plate.

Some departments, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, for example, wrote back saying they had nothing. The Buffalo Police wrote back saying he needed to contact the Erie County Department of Central Police Services.

Central Police Services runs a forensic laboratory, an E-911 answering center, a site for classroom education and training, and it stores the millions of plate scans that most Erie County agencies collect.

Central Police Services was granting FOI requests from vehicle owners who wanted scans of their own autos. Before long, Ward had the scans of his plates. He was surprised at how specific the information was.

His plate had been scanned twice: at 12:19 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2014, on Sheridan Drive near Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda; and at 7:43 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, at Delaware Avenue and Edward Street in Buffalo. The data revealed pictures of his auto from both occasions.

Ward then wanted to know more about how this information could be used beyond some legitimate law enforcement investigation. Who could get access to data about him or any other individual?

He unleashed more FOI requests seeking local government policies about the use of plate readers. None had one. Not even Central Police Services.

But months later, Commissioner John Glascott, who retired just weeks ago, determined that U.S. Justice Department rules would govern the Erie County data: “Information is available for criminal justice and law enforcement personnel for criminal justice purposes only. Anyone violating the rule could face civil and criminal penalties.’’

Glascott also determined that plate scans would be stored for one year, unless the plate triggered a hit because the auto had been stolen, or connected to a crime, or for a range of similar reasons. Those plates would be kept in the system for five years. Glascott said that reflects fairness and practicality.

“I’d love to say it’s because I’m such a privacy advocate. But part of it also has to do with just server space,’’ he said. “I would be buying server after server after server just to maintain that kind of information. And there’s also an issue of, if you don’t know what you are looking for in a year, you probably don’t need to know,’’ he said.

A bill in Albany would cut the retention period statewide in half, to six months. But its chance of passing in the current legislative session are remote.

Other sources of data

Some advocates argue that because the data can be so useful to law enforcement, and can lead to both convictions and exonerations, it should be stored indefinitely. Any restrictions, they argue, should instead be placed on the personnel who can search it. For example, a patrol officer working on fast-moving matters should have access to only a few weeks or months of data. But a cold-case detective should be able to go back as far as needed.

In Erie County, Glascott’s policy makes it appear as though local law enforcement officials have only one year of data to retrieve. But there are ways around every problem.

Detectives can turn to other piles of license-plate scans, including those that private companies compile for their own needs. One company, the Digital Recognition Network in Fort Worth, Texas, holds more than 4 billion scans of the nation’s 256 million autos. It is being amassed at a rate of about 70 million records each month, and the records are held indefinitely.

Its existence stokes some of the same privacy concerns generated by the police-accumulated data. What’s more, the private scans can be sold to an array of commercial interests.

Law enforcement agencies do not sell the data they collect, said Town of Tonawanda Police Chief Jerome C. Uschold III.

“We have regulations on the information that we gather,’’ he said. “Commercial businesses don’t have those regulations.’’

MONDAY: The private sector has amassed billions of plate scans and put them up for sale. email: mspina@buffnews.com