New York knows where your license plate goes

Traffic heads east on Interstate 490 near Alexander Street in Rochester. Anytime you are on the road, there’s a chance the license plate on your vehicle could be photographed and saved in a police database.
  • New York law enforcement agencies have compiled databases holding tens of millions of license plate reader records.
  • Each record shows the time and place that a particular vehicle was captured by a police license plate camera.
  • Though records are meant for law enforcement use%2C most of them show the location of vehicles driven by citizens who aren%27t suspected of any crime or infraction.
  • In a crime-fighting tactic that sets civil libertarians’ teeth on edge, police in Monroe County and other urban counties across New York state are collecting and archiving tens of millions of records that track vehicle movement. The records are stored in a series of loosely connected secure computer servers, accessible directly or indirectly by police from one end of New York to the other and by federal Homeland Security officials. Each of the records, which are gathered by license plate cameras mounted on police cars or at fixed locations, includes a photograph and the time and place that a particular vehicle was imaged. Strung together, the records can paint a picture of where a person has traveled — whether to the scene of a crime, a doctor’s office or to church.

    The system can instantly alert patrol officers of a “hit” on a stolen car or, more often, a vehicle whose registration has lapsed and is ripe for ticketing. Stored records also can be accessed later as part of criminal investigations.

    Records used for those purposes, though, constitute only a small fraction of all the data being saved. The vast majority of the vehicles tracked in the license-plate data were driven not by scofflaws or criminals but by innocent citizens who happen to be photographed driving to work or while running errands.

    And least nine of New York’s most populous counties — Monroe, Erie, Onondaga, Albany, Broome, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau — are now engaged in long-term storage of these records.

    The purpose is to allow investigators to go back in time and track where a criminal suspect spent his time or look for witnesses who might have been driving near the scene of a crime. Not knowing which records might be useful, authorities are choosing to keep them all.

    In Monroe, Albany and Westchester counties, as well as in New York City, the policy is to keep all license-plate records accessible for five years. The New York State Police also retain records for five years. Erie and Onondaga counties plan to keep them for a year.

    At least some of the records will be kept indefinitely beyond those designated periods, available with approval from a judge or district attorney.

    Advocates of license-plate readers say stored data helps investigators who need to hunt for evidence of criminal patterns or associations.

    “There are privacy concerns and there are legitimate public safety concerns. In every occasion it’s important to look at those and find a balance,” said Michael Green, executive deputy director of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, which has paid for equipment to store the records and encourages its use. “If you look at the public safety side, they are another tool that have allowed them to solve significant cases — murders, rapes.”.

    How often use of these records help solve crimes after the fact is not clear. Several police officials told the Democrat and Chronicle they don’t keep track.

    Kaelyn Rich, director of the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said long-term police storage of information about vehicular movement makes it “a tool for mass surveillance and mass location tracking.

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    “It can be a reasonably useful technology. The problem is they’re storing records that are not hits. They’re keeping these millions of other records on everyday people going about their business,” Rich said. “In the United States, it’s a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and they do not collect information on people in case they do something wrong.”.

    New York law is silent on license-plate readers and record retention.

    Analogous to NSA tactic.

    In many ways, the license-plate record situation is analogous to the National Security Agency’s capture of domestic cellphone and email records.

    When made public last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, some defended the tactic by arguing that people who have nothing to hide shouldn’t mind the government data collection. But the anti-terrorism program raised the hackles of other Americans not for what the government was doing with the records, but what it could do.

    It is not possible to determine exactly how many license-plate records are being stored by New York law enforcement agencies, and under what terms. Though they function in unison, the county-based systems are locally run and details can be elusive.

    One local detail was available, though: As of Wednesday morning, Monroe County had 3,765,555 license-plate records in storage, county officials said. The records can increase by several thousand or more per day.

    As of a few weeks ago, Onondaga County had archived 5.2 million records, officials there said. Albany County had stored 37 million records, according to a spokeswoman from Green’s agency. Erie County officials said they currently have the capacity to store 12 million records and are looking to add storage capacity so they can preserve more.

    Broome County, just setting up a centralized system now, has no records in storage yet and hasn’t set a retention policy, officials there said.

    The State Police agency, which has 140 license-plate cameras — far more than any of the counties — declined to say how many records it has piled up in its server. The records are not considered public information, spokeswoman Kristin Lowman said.

    Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Westchester District Attorney’s Office, declined to say how many records that county has in storage.

    The Democrat and Chronicle contacted law enforcement officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties at least twice, but neither provided answers to questions about their collection and storage practices.

    The New York City Police Department also did not respond to a request for comment. The New York Times reported last year that the department had amassed 16 million license-plate records, and others have reported those records are kept for five years.

    Though the records are maintained separately in the various counties and by the State Police, cooperative relationships cause the databases to function almost like “cloud” storage, accessible to law enforcement from one end of the state to the other.

    “For example, Albany police could ask about Monroe County data. They do it in an automated way,” said Green, a former Monroe County district attorney. “Data is not centralized. What they do is connect.”.

    Crime analysis.

    In Monroe, Erie, Onondaga, Albany and Broome counties, the primary users of the license-plate data are state-funded crime analysis centers that exist in each of those locations.

    The centers, the first of which sprung into life about five years ago, bring together field intelligence officers and data analysts to support police investigations and study trends and patterns.

    They neither collect nor own the actual records, however.

    The police agencies that gather records with their readers own the data, Green said. If they choose, they can upload to a central server run by local authorities in each of the five counties. In Monroe, the Sheriff’s Office owns the server, which was placed into service in February 2012.

    Analysts who work for an analysis center can access Monroe’s records. So can representatives of the federal Department of Homeland Security and of the local police agencies that upload the records.

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    At any given time, analysts might be helping with one or two cases in which the records are tapped, Green said. Officials said it’s a useful tool.

    “The use of LPR technology in law enforcement has included a variety of applications: homeland security, electronic surveillance, suspect interdiction, stolen property recovery and more,” said Lowman, the State Police spokeswoman.

    The lion’s share of the nearly 3.8 million records now stored in Monroe County apparently come from the Sheriff’s Office, which has three car-mounted license plate readers and three units in fixed locations. Rochester police contribute records from their one reader. The county probation department, with two mobile readers, also contributes.

    At least seven of the nine police departments in Monroe County towns and villages have license-plate readers. Greece has four; Irondequoit, Brighton, Gates, Webster, Ogden, Fairport and Brockport each have one. East Rochester has none.

    Webster and Fairport upload data to the county, according to those departments. So did Ogden until its license-plate reader broke, Chief Douglas Nordquist said. That department is looking for funding to buy a new one.

    But officials at Greece, Irondequoit, Brighton and Gates said they did not supply data to the county storage system; most discard it after a month or so. Brockport did not provide an answer to that question. The suburban departments generally have older-style readers that lack easy data-upload capabilities.

    Data retrieval.

    Analysts at the five analysis centers are authorized to check one another’s license-plate data whenever they have the need. The State Police also are part of this cooperative network, as are police intelligence centers in Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties. It is not clear whether other counties also take part.

    Inquiries are made through a computer server maintained by the state that instantly searches all the connected local databases for a given license plate number.

    Other police agencies that aren’t part of one of those centers can ask a crime center analyst to search the cloud for them, Green said.

    Any agency that accesses the license-plate records must do so in connection with an active investigation, Green and others said. “It’s been portrayed by some people that there is someone constantly trolling this data. That is not what’s happening,” he said.

    At the Sheriff’s Office, all requests for license-plate record information are routed through one sergeant, who handles data retrieval and logs each query, said spokesman Cpl. John Helfer. “There’s a process,” he said.

    Crime center analysts who access the data undergo background checks before coming on the job and are trained and certified, Green said. The centers also audit one employee each month, making him or her provide documentation of the reason for any query performed on the license-plate records, said Janine Kava, a DCJS spokeswoman.

    “There have been no issues with improper access,” she said.

    In Erie County, where insufficient storage space is driving efforts to upgrade equipment, officials are asking vendors whether their products have an audit-trail capability that would help ensure everyone was abiding by the rules.

    While officials don’t think anyone in Erie is using data inappropriately, central police services deputy director Marlaine Hoffman said “it is a concern.”.

    Officials in Minnesota likely would concur it’s a good idea to keep such data locked up tight.

    Audits in 2012 revealed that countless Minnesota law enforcement personnel who had access to that state’s driver and motor-vehicle databases for their work had made thousands of illicit queries, often to get personal information and pictures of women. Hundreds of legal claims have been filed by aggrieved citizens there.


    Asked how useful the license-plate reader system is at solving crimes, police officials usually respond with an anecdote.

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    “There was a shooting in a park in a local town. The police cars got to the scene and saw vehicles racing off. A license-plate reader picked up the plates on one car that was leaving, and they were able to interview the driver. It assisted in the investigation. So they decided to put one of them up on a permanent post,” said John Glascott, Erie County’s commissioner of central police services. “If there’s an issue in the park, they want to be able to go back to see ‘Here’s what cars were in the park between 8 and 10 o’clock at night.’ “.

    If pressed about how often the system locates a stolen car or helps make a case, officials interviewed for this story say they have no hard numbers.

    “It’s hard to say. It (the data) tends to be one piece of the puzzle. We don’t have a report written that directly links arrest or crime data to license-plate reader records,” said Nick Pettiti, director of business intelligence for the Rochester police.

    DCJS, as the state agency is known, did track results in a 12-month period in 2007 and 2008. Seventy-seven readers scooped up 5.9 million records in that time period. This led to the recovery of 64 stolen cars and 131 stolen license plates, and detention of 166 persons wanted by police or the courts.

    The readers also found 11,010 cars with suspended or revoked registration.

    The DCJS data is similar to figures included in a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that was highly critical of what it called misuse of license-plate cameras. The civil liberties group said 2012 statistics it obtained from the state of Maryland showed that for every million plates scanned there, 2,000 vehicle-registration problems and only 47 cases thought to be associated with actual criminal activity were identified.

    “Is it worth it to trade our privacy for that?” Asked Rich, of the ACLU’s Rochester-area chapter. “It seems like an inefficient use of tax dollars and time.”.

    In its 2013 report, the ACLU also raised concerns that an unchecked government agency could someday use the data to track the movements of lawful protesters, dissidents or political opponents of the party in power.

    Indeed, several legal claims in Minnesota were filed by conservative political candidates who discovered their driving records had been accessed shortly after they announced their run for office.

    “It does open the door to abuse,” Rich said of mass data collection.

    In at least a few places, political leaders aren’t convinced license-plate readers and data storage are an appropriate police tactic.

    New Hampshire has gone so far as to ban their use almost entirely, as has Iowa City, Iowa.

    Minnesota and Maine require records be purged after three weeks. Legislation in Massachusetts this year, which advanced in both houses but did not pass, would require more records to be discarded in 48 hours. South Carolina lawmakers considered a ban in 2013.

    The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to deny the use of federal money to buy license-plate readers or record storage systems. The matter hasn’t been passed by the U.S. Senate.

    A search turned up no record of legislation being introduced in New York state related to license-plate readers.

    As a rule, law enforcement officials are comfortable with the internal safeguards now in place. “There are reasonable privacy concerns. I won’t downplay them. But it’s not like the law enforcement agencies are just using this willy-nilly,” said Glascott in Erie County. “They always have a reason.”.

    Asked whether the NYCLU would prefer the state Legislature rein in the use of license-plate readers, Rich said, “I’m less concerned about how we remedy it as I am that it gets remedies. We need to know how our law enforcement agencies are using this data, how long they’re keeping it for and if they’re putting adequate privacy protections in place.”.