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County Computer Stores Plate Reader Vehicle Data

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Electronic surveillance devices are everywhere, and some are not so obvious.

The intriguing headline of a newspaper article that may have slipped by over the Memorial Day holiday: "Big data is now watching you – 37 million entries capture movements of motorists in the Capital Region"

Albany Times Union reporter Jordan Carleo-Evangelist investigated upon receiving a press release from the governor's office announcing that several local police departments had received grant money for license plate readers.

"What was interesting on the press release was what they were using them for. There was a blurb about each grant to the police department, and in all cases they were using them to combat property crimes, like burglary, larceny, thefts from cars, which I thought was interesting because it's not traditionally what license plate  readers were used for when police departments first started getting them. Traditionally they were used to find stolen cars, spot expired insurance or registration, vehicle and traffic stuff. And I knew, based on this press release and things that I've read, there's been some national reporting on this, the ACLU had done a pretty comprehensive report on the issue last year, that based on these descriptions, it sort of seemed to signal that the way police were using them locally was changing."

Chris Dunn, the Associate Legal Director of The New York Civil Liberties Union, says the most immediate implication of the plate reader programs is that police are now going to have the ability with the touch of a button to know where many of us have been and where we are traveling in our daily lives.  "License plate readers indiscriminately capture license plate information and store it. Unless you have police departments that are consciously choosing NOT to keep the data, they are quite simply compiling huge data bases that will show anybody where we have been and where we have traveled, and we think that's grossly inappropriate."

Carleo-Evangelist notes that long-term storage of data is at the crux of the legal debate: how much can be stored and for how long?  "I think that there are limits at the local level and those limits are dictated by money, but as long as the state is helping pay for it all, the local police departments are, I think, more than happy to accept the resources. They will argue that there are completely valid and useful law-enforcement crime-fighting purposes for this technology."

Tom Carr is a partner at Albany law firm Tully Rinckey: he points out "a couple of issues" with surveillance instruments that track people's movements. "First of all, once you're out and about in public, just as anyone can see you, cameras can see you and cameras can record your image. Just like you don't have to get signed releases if you're a tourist in New York City and you're taking pictures and there are people walking through the shot, you don't have to go and get signed releases from those people. They're out in public, so their image is out there, so that’s OK. The line is if someone is in public or if someone is in  a setting where there is an expectation of privacy. So if someone is in their own home, for instance, obviously there's a clear expectation of privacy, so someone shouldn't be taking pictures of them or recording their movements while they're in their home.  The gray line is where the courts get involved, as to was it a legitimate use of the technology to capture someone's image be it the image of the individual themselves or the license plate on their car or not. And that's where we're going to see, I think, issues developing with the surveillance."

According to the Times-Union, a computer server in the Albany County office building at 112 State St. has logged 37 million entries on the movements of thousands of motorists in the Capital Region, or about 42 records for every person in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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