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New Canaan Selectmen wrestle security vs privacy with LPRs

Published 9:39 am, Thursday, December 13, 2012

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  • Captain Thomas Moore of the Darien police department stands next to a cruiser equipped with a License Plate Reader (LPR) machine. Dec. 10, 2012. Darien, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods
    Captain Thomas Moore of the Darien police department stands next to a cruiser equipped with a License Plate Reader (LPR) machine. Dec. 10, 2012. Darien, Conn. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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As the world hurdles headlong into the technological future, New Canaan political leaders must decide what they want that future to look like in town.

At the Dec. 4 Board of Selectmen meeting, the New Canaan Police Department brought forth a request of $20,000 to buy and install a license plate reader on one of the department's cars.

"The reason it's valuable to us is the recent home invasions and burglaries," Capt. David Bender at the meeting, referencing the August home invasion that took place on Ponus Ridge Road. "Many times as the officer is racing to the scene, the criminals are racing away from the scene."

He said scanning vehicles' license plates wouldn't help them catch the criminals on the spot, but could help build evidence against them.

"If the vehicle the home invaders were in was in the area at certain times, it would certainly give us something to go on for that crime," said Police Chief Ed Nadriczny. For example, if the police had a string of unsolved larcenies and they could point to the fact that the suspected robbers' car was in the area that night, it might go far in ascertaining who burgled the house.

In Darien, the focus of the LPRs seemed to be geared to smaller-scale crime fighting, such as catching people whose licenses and registrations have expired. The Darien police like the LPRs -- they have two for their force.

"OK, now watch this," Capt. Thomas Moore, of the Darien Police Department, said as he turned on the MPH-900 License Plate Reader mounted to the right of his steering wheel. As he drove down Hecker Avenue in Darien, pictures of oncoming cars popped up on the computer monitor, one after another. Another portion of the screen had a zoomed-in, composite visible light and sunlight image of the license plates, shot with two sets of cameras mounted on the outside of the vehicle. Another part of the screen had a log of time and exact location of each license plate. All the license plate numbers were being instantaneously checked against statewide crime, FBI and the Darien Parking Authority's databases for issues such as outstanding arrest warrants, expired registration, reports of stolen cars and unpaid parking tickets. The information collected each day is stored in a database.

"This is a major, major improvement," Moore said.

On the other side of the equation is privacy. Many, even supporters of the technology, worry about how long the data is kept. They fear that a database containing residents' locations at different times is information that could be misused, especially if the data falls under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act and could be accessed by any citizen who requests it.

Earlier in the year, the Connecticut Chapter of American Civil Liberties Union requested under the FOIA the reader database of a consortium of towns in the Hartford area. Staff attorney David McGuire was surprised by the results.

"This is a really powerful technology. I don't know if people know how accurate it is," he said. "We ran our own plates, and were surprised to see we were all picked up several times. It had me scanned in a parking lot in Enfield at a bar on a certain day at 5 p.m. I said, `That doesn't make sense,' but sure enough, I looked up in my planner and I met my friend for a drink. It would show if you were in front of a therapist every week."

Town Councilman Roger Williams has been one of the most vocal critics in town of the LPR, though he supports it if there are guaranteed limits to the data retention.

"Our concern had always been this invasion of privacy," he said. "While you can say, `What right to privacy can you expect with your license plate exposed?' that's reasonable, but residents should be able to expect that their Sunday morning trip to church shouldn't be logged and have that be available as public information. Alcoholics Anonymous on Wednesday -- all of a sudden the anonymous part goes away."

For McGuire and the ACLU, the bottom line is that if the quantity of information kept about citizens accrues without being dumped, it will, like so many well-intentioned ideas, fall victim to the unintended consequence of abuse.

"There is not a need to keep this data indefinitely because it is eventually going to be misused, that's inevitable," he said.

All three Board of Selectmen members were concerned with the privacy issue.

At the meeting, Selectman Beth Jones said she had trouble supporting the use of the technology without assurances that the data would not fall under the purview of the FOIA. She noted that in the Hartford case, the districts had voluntarily turned over the information after the ACLU requested it. She said that in talking with Nadriczny, he would not have done that, rather he would have refused and made the FOI Commission make a ruling. McGuire confirmed that the Hartford-area districts, which did not include Hartford itself, had turned over the data voluntarily.

After the meeting, she spoke about more general hesitation at the direction this technology might take.

"I would like to see a lot more discussion of it because I think there's a line you cross where it is an invasion of privacy," Jones said. "The argument that was being made for doing it was that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from it, but they can say that about most everything. If you're doing things legally and they want to confiscate your computer, you should have nothing to fear (by that logic). It's that Big Brother issue -- where do you draw the line?"

While he said the privacy issues mattered to him, Selectman Nick Williams said he would support buying the LPR even without a guarantee that the data will be deleted. He thought that a time limit to the data would be enacted at the state level sooner rather than later, and mentioned that other towns haven't had problems with it.

In an interview after the meeting, Williams noted that citizens should not necessarily expect their whereabouts to be private when traveling on public roads with a public ID in the form of a license plate.

"The very fact that you're driving around with a license plate means that you're driving around with official identification for everyone to see," he said.

According to a 2012 article in the Washington Post, the District of Columbia has more than 250 LPRs throughout the city.

Such coverage raises questions. The ACLU predicts that in 10 years, every police car will be equipped with an LPR. If a town, state or region was blanketed in this way, drivers' whereabouts could be ascertained for nearly the entire time the driver might be on the road.

Some states, such as New Hampshire, have banned the use of LPRs. Others, including Maine, have instituted a 21-day limit on the retention of the data, so that large files of peoples' whereabouts would not build up. A bill in Connecticut that would have limited the retention of the data to 14 days, HB 5391, died on the floor of the House this spring.

In many ways, the ubiquity of the LPRs speaks to their success. Police districts around the country are scrambling to get up to speed on the latest technology. The sales of LPRs and the revenue of the companies that make them have skyrocketed in recent years. What it means to be a police officer itself is changing.

"Policing across the country is using technology more," Moore said. "Generations before me were scared of technology. Younger guys now are tech savvy. Over the past 10 years, we've gone from using technology infrequently to all the time."

Moore used the example of fingerprinting, which no longer uses ink, but an electronic scanner that records results digitally.

"The result is we're now more efficient and effective," he said. "Where you once just had a radio in the car, now we have computers scanning license plates, checking records to a database."

Moore said he hopes to get more LPRs for the Darien police in the future.

"I know Stamford's got like 10," he said.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews