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License plate readers help Mass. police, worry privacy groups

Fueled by federal grants, high-speed cameras that can automatically read up to 30 license plates a second and check them for violations or law enforcement alerts are scanning more streets and highways across Massachusetts this year.

Earlier this year, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security doled out $500,000 in federal highway grants to 26 police departments for automatic plate readers, which can be stationary or mounted on a cruiser on patrol.

Three local departments – Taunton, Randolph and Plymouth – were among those that won the grants.

Randolph‘s camera has been working for a month and has yielded some arrests of people wanted by police.

“It‘s been working very well, and it‘s always out and about on a sector cruiser,‖ Randolph Police Chief William Pace said.

Police tout the technology as a tool to protect law-abiding motorists from other drivers without licenses, registrations or insurance. But as the devices become more prevalent, privacy advocates question what information police are collecting on drivers and how they store, share and use that data.

“The potential for abuse is pretty serious,” said Kade Crockford, privacy rights coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The cameras are clearly in high demand. Ninety-eight police departments applied to the state‘s public safety office for a grant to buy one this year.

“It‘s the latest craze in technology for law enforcement,” said Nathan Maloney, spokesman for ELSAG North America, a major manufacturer of plate readers.

The cameras can capture images of any nearby license plates, even at night, and isolate the numbers and convert them into electronic data.

Police can upload databases into the systems to automatically check plate numbers for connections to anything from driving offenses to arrest warrants to ticket scofflaws to missing people alerts.

Officers typically have to check this information manually on laptop computers or ask dispatchers to look it up. In some departments, police said officers would still confirm matches found by plate readers to make sure the information is up to date.

Checking a plate manually can take a minute or so, police said. ELSAG‘s plate readers can scan up to 1,800 plates a minute, according to Maloney.

Automatic plate readers also record information on the dates, times and locations of the plates they scan, according to a report from the police chiefs‘ group.

Authorities said this information could aid criminal investigations, such as placing the same car at the scene of multiple bank robberies or break-ins.

But collecting this information on all citizens – even law-abiding ones – is what worries privacy advocates.

Crockford of the ACLU described a lack of consistent guidelines on how this data can be used or stored, even as the technology is already in use. The devices could, for example, be used to track the movements of people who attend a political demonstration, she said.

Taunton Police first purchased one of the devices about a year ago, said Chief Edward Walsh, and used the $18,187 in grant funds it received this year to install a second one about three weeks ago.

Walsh said the department has seen an increase in identifying those driving with lapsed registrations or revoked licenses, but he said the device has been just as useful from an investigative standpoint.

For example, when police probed a shooting, they have gone back to look at images from the area for any helpful plate readings. Police can also be proactive in getting “a baseline of who‘s hanging out where” by driving through a certain area and letting the device collect images, he said.

In addressing potential privacy issues, Walsh said police don‘t have incentive to keep data stored for long periods of time.

“If that thing is taking 2,000, 3000 images a day, you‘re going to fill up a computer real quick with data,” Walsh said. “So you don‘t want to maintain a lot of it because it will weigh your system down.”

By David Riley gatehouse news service

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