Authorities in Maryland plan to collect data on motorists using automated license-plate
scanners and centrally store it at a police intelligence fusion center where law enforcement specialists analyze and share sensitive information about criminal and terrorist threats.

The initiative makes Maryland among the first nationally to establish a statewide network for data generated from license-plate readers. While the devices have not endured regular scrutiny and occasional opposition the way public surveillance cameras have historically, the technology in many respects is more powerful.

Privacy advocates warn that plate recognition enables police to document where drivers go – both guilty car thieves and innocent citizens alike – by registering their GPS locations when each license plate is scanned. Police need reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or will be committed for much of the contact officers have with the public, at least in theory. But laws that restrict data gathering by law enforcement don’t always keep up with the 21st century.

A statement by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Aug. 4 says only that the data will be used for “legitimate law enforcement purposes” and “the privacy rights of Maryland’s citizens are protected using appropriate policies and procedures.” The state plans to spend $4 million by next year for over 200 scanners and says so far they’ve alerted police to carjacking suspects, plates stolen from other cars, suspended registrations, drivers wanted on felony warrants and more.

After Elevated Risk pressed a spokesman in the governor’s office for additional answers, Shaun Adamec said in an e-mail that local agencies are being encouraged to develop privacy policies that limit how long data can be held. Maryland’s Coordination and Analysis Center, meanwhile, has internal rules for ensuring that information “is carefully maintained, responsibly stored, safely disseminated and routinely purged,” he said.

“Any information on license plates is used specifically for public safety purposes,” Adamec said. “It’s also important to note that license plates are state-issued and are not considered private property.”

The latest news comes just two years after civil liberties advocates exposed a spying program coordinated by the Maryland State Police and aimed at political activist groups not necessarily believed to have committed any crimes. State authorities infiltrated and monitored activist organizations and collected information about their members, in part by using fake e-mail addresses and screen names.

Targets of the spying included death penalty opponents, mainstream human rights groups and peace activists. One longtime anti-violence organizer ended up in a database used for storing information about high-level drug traffickers. There he was categorized under “terrorism – anti-government” and “terrorism – anti-war protesters.” Surveillance logs generated by police even described a meeting he had with a member of Congress to discuss withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The revelation led O’Malley to request an investigation of the state police, and he called on past-U.S. Attorney Stephen Sachs to conduct it. In a final report, the former prosecutor concluded that no one in the state police’s chain of command “gave any thought whatever” to the possibility that infiltrating such groups was inappropriate, nor were efforts made to establish reasonable suspicion that the activists were involved in criminal activity. According to the probe from Sachs:

Many of the [Maryland State Police] troopers and commanders whom we interviewed maintained, essentially, that it is better to be safe than sorry, and that even a remote risk to public safety justifies the infiltration of groups that plan lawful protests and demonstrations. Such a justification proves too much. It would justify government infiltration, without limitation, of any group of people who seek to exercise publicly their rights of free expression and association.

Shaun Adamec, the spokesman for O’Malley, said Maryland’s spy scandal occurred under a past governor. “Such behavior may have been the policy of that administration,” he said. “It’s certainly not the practice of this one.” By “that administration” he means former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who’s now locked in an election battle with O’Malley to regain his throne after losing it in 2006. Ehrlich has publicly expressed concern about plate readers, and he strongly opposes the use of traffic cameras, a very similar technology facing resistance in many corners of the country.

Police nationally are buying license-plate readers with greater frequency in part because of the availability of economic stimulus funds and advancements in the technology. Funding for Maryland’s plate-recognition program comes from a mix of federal criminal justice and homeland security grants.

The Illinois-based company Motorola Inc., which has made a small fortune since Sept. 11 from readiness grants by selling public safety radio systems to state and local governments, foresees patrol cars someday carrying four scanners aimed in different directions. Officers have to do virtually nothing when the devices are in operation. Motorola says the recognition technology allows police to check up to 5,000 plates during an eight-hour shift. The systems then compare plate information automatically against databases of outstanding warrants or vehicles reported stolen.

But Motorola’s product literature also emphasizes that the scanners can “quietly note the time and location” when a “vehicle of interest” is captured by the device. From there, a software program named BOSS turns the data into “useful intelligence,” which police can query by time, date, all or a portion of the plate’s numbers and location of the vehicle. This data can also be mapped to form a larger portrait of the driver’s activities.

Few states have distinct rules governing the scanners. The Kansas City Star did a story on them Aug. 2 and found this:

Police like the devices for their speed and efficiency but mostly for their ability to record thousands of plates and their locations each day. … Over time, as more information is collected, the database is more likely to reveal a particular vehicle’s movements, according to a privacy study released last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which supports police use of the license plate readers. The study noted that residents may worry that cameras would collect their license plate numbers at places with which they may not prefer to be linked, such as addiction counseling meetings, doctors’ offices or staging areas for political protests. Police agencies should adopt a policy that regulates the collection and use of the data, to reduce residents’ anxiety, according to the study. Area police departments, including Kansas City, don’t yet have such policies.

Video demonstration of automated license-plate scanners from NDI Recognition Systems, a vendor of the technology founded in the U.K.

Flickr image of a license-plate recognition device courtesy alexrhee25.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.