Saturday, July 19, 2014

Should Takoma Park share license-plate reader data with the State of Maryland?

Monday evening, July 21, the city council will discuss and then vote on a resolution authorizing our police department to share its license plate reader (LPR) data with the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC). Police Chief Alan Goldberg requested this policy change; MCAC is a state "fusion center" that would retain the data for one year (or longer if needed for an active investigation), making it available for law enforcement investigations by agencies state-wide and for homeland security investigations. Current city policy is that our own police department may retain LPR data for up to 30 days and may not share it with outside agencies.

Takoma Park has three vehicle-mounted license plate reader systems. They identify vehicles that have been reported stolen or that are of interest in a criminal investigation. Please note that Takoma Park can continue to benefit from the LPR technology, for local crime reduction, without sharing data from our own readers. Our police force has accees to other jurisdictions' crime data, regardless whether we share our LPR data.

Vehicle-mounted LPR (Gazette photo)

We are reconsidering city policy. The aim is to establish city policy that responds both to legitimate law enforcement needs and to concerns that data sharing infringes on civil liberties and that shared data could be improperly used.

We could authorize our police force to create a local database with extended local retention, say up to one year, or we could instead authorize transmission of our data to MCAC (making local retention unnecessary).

What is your view?

Please let me know; constituents' views will inform my vote. Contact me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225. Do consider attending Monday evening's council meeting to comment at 7:30 pm, or share your position with the council: Bruce Williams <brucewtakoma@gmail.com>, Frederick Schultz <SchultzAssociates@rcn.com>, Jarrett Smith <jarrett.smith@gmail.com>, Kate Stewart <katemarystewart@gmail.com>, Terry Seamens <TJSeamens@aol.com>, and Tim Male <timothymale@gmail.com>.

There are many information sources and opinions on this issue. They include:

- The resolution backgrounder, which includes the proposed General Order 717 covering sharing of LPR data; an excerpt of a MCAC internal policy document, and responses from LPR program manager Colleen Richarts to city questions; and a May message from Senator Jamie Raskin, Senate co-sponsor of a 2014 bill that governed MCAC data policy, regarding protections.

(Two House of Delegates co-sponsors of the 2014 bill, Ana Sol Gutierrez and Al Carr, also contacted us in May. They were dismayed that their bill had been watered down and asked the city not to change its policy. Carr wrote us, "We would also hope TP would not cede control of its residents' information to the fusion center (which can change its policy at any time and has discussed increasing its retention policy) and add to the growing problem of governmental databases about innocent individual's daily lives.")

- An informative May write-up by Councilmember Tim Male, and Councilmember Kate Stewart's most recent update, which provides a to-the-point description of the issue.

- The ACLU of Maryland, which issued a May action alter stating, "Sharing and storing location data is not necessary for using [automated] LPRs to identify stolen cars or find missing persons. But 99.8 percent of the data collected by police departments using this technology has no connection to any offense at all. If a crime occurs where location data might be useful, the Takoma Park police should store only that relevant data, and should not store or share all the data they collect. We must defend the core American principle that you are innocent until proven guilty. Takoma Park should not help fill a statewide database tracking the location and movement of innocent Marylanders. Tell Takoma Park Councilmembers: We can fight crime and protect privacy."

- Maryland SB699, as enacted this year, taking effect October 1, 2014, regarding state handling of LPR data. This is the bill that Senator Raskin co-sponsored -- again, see his e-mail to me in the Monday evening backgrounder -- but that Delegates Gutierrez and Carr believe falls short.

- Robert Wack, president of the Westminster, Maryland Common Council wrote us in May to related that Westminster decided not to share the town's LPR data. While Westminster's LPR use, like Takoma Park's current use, provides local police the "ability to scan, analyze, and report on licenseplate information day or night, under any weather conditions, and at any time, place, situation (driving or stationary)," from Westminster's "perspective, allowing the collection, storage, and sharing of this data is one more step toward a pervasive surveillance state that none of us are comfortable with."

- The draft Takoma Park resolution, authorizing data sharing with MCAC within MCAC's one-year retention policy.

Is the police chief's proposed policy acceptable?

Could it, or the council's authorizing resolution, be strengthened?

Will the law enforcement benefits that result from LPR data sharing be sufficient to justify this policy change, given the civil liberties and privacy concerns?

These are questions that the council will discuss in considering the resolution. Myself, I am unconvinced that LPR data sharing will enhance law enforcement in Takoma Park, or elsewhere. I have not seen a compelling crime-fighting argument.

My own suggestion is a compromise. The Takoma Park Police Department should be authorized to retain data for up to one year, and to continue accessing other jurisdictions' data through MCAC and other channels and systems. In one year, the department would report back to the council on the effectiveness of longer local retention, and the council would then, at that time and using actual data now lacking, consider data sharing.

Please do share your thoughts.

Seth

Added July 22, 2014:

The city council voted to change city policy on license plate reader data sharing and retention. By a 4-3 vote, the council decided that city LPR data should be transmitted to the Maryland fusion center, where it will be retained for one year (or longer, if needed for an investigation) and where it will be available for law enforcement and homeland security investigations.

I voted Against, because it did not seem that law enforcement benefits would be sufficient to outweigh privacy and civil liberties concerns. Also voting against were Jarrett Smith and Terry Seamens. Voting For were Bruce Williams, Tim Male, Fred Schultz, and Kate Stewart.

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