- Matthew Thorsen
Winooski police Sgt. Mike Cram was patrolling Route 7 during last Friday’s snowstorm when the laptop computer in his SUV started flashing and beeping like a slot machine. The automated license-plate reader mounted on the vehicle’s roof had just recorded a “hit.” An alert on Cram’s computer indicated the driver of a red Cadillac heading in the other direction had a suspended license.
After confirming the license suspension with dispatch, Cram pulled a quick U-turn and stopped the Cadillac as it was climbing the on-ramp to Interstate 89. It turned out the driver didn’t have insurance, either. On the spot, Cram called a towing company and told the driver to call his wife for a ride home.
Two weeks ago — before Winooski purchased its automated license-plate reader, or ALPR — Cram would have been oblivious to the driver’s infraction. “There’s nothing that stands out about the car that says ‘stop me,’” Cram says. “He would have driven right past me. And with today’s weather, who knows what he would have hit on the interstate.”
But Cram didn’t miss him. He stopped a potentially dangerous situation with the help of the plate reader — a powerful and controversial technology that’s raising privacy concerns as more Vermont police agencies use them in everyday patrols. Two years ago, the scanners were virtually unheard of in Vermont. But thanks to federal Homeland Security grants that cover the cost of each $24,000 scanner, ALPRs are now in use at more than 30 law-enforcement agencies across the state.
Cram’s high-tech car catching is dependent on data that run through the Vermont Information and Analysis Center in Williston, formerly called the Vermont Fusion Center. Twice a day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., the VIAC pushes out information to police agencies that are using license-plate readers. That data dump includes Department of Motor Vehicles records on expired registrations and suspended licenses, active criminal arrest warrants and wanted persons from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, or NCIC.
But Cram’s data — photographs of dozens of license plates with no known violations — also travels back to the VIAC, a multiagency intelligence operation staffed by the state police under the direction of Lt. Mark Lauer. Using scanned plates, the Vermont State Police have built a vast statewide database that can track a vehicle’s travel history with a few keystrokes.
Law-enforcement officials say the cops only use the big database to catch criminals and find missing persons and that there are numerous safeguards in place to prevent abuse. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and some lawmakers in Montpelier are not reassured.
Worried about the potential for misuse, four state senators have introduced a bill that would create statewide regulations for employing plate scanners and limit the amount of time police can hold onto the data they collect while patrolling the state’s roads and highways.
Vermont police currently store information collected from plate readers for up to four years, regardless of whether the plate is part of a criminal investigation. Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), a lead sponsor of the plate-reader bill, calls that duration “wildly excessive.” His bill would limit data storage to 180 days. After that, police would have to purge the plate data.
The state of Maine purges plate data after 21 days, unless it’s being used in a criminal investigation. New Hampshire has prohibited use of the scanners outright.
Law-enforcement agencies are not opposed to limits on storage of plate information, but many say six months is unreasonably short. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn proposed two years as a compromise — less than the statute of limitations on most crimes.
Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling is open to limits, but he says permanently deleting data would be a mistake. He wants old data to go into some type of archive, accessible to law enforcement with a court order. What if there were another Israel Keyes? poses Schirling referring to the confessed serial killer who stalked and murdered Bill and Lorraine Currier of Essex. Cops argue that info from plate readers could provide clues to help them apprehend dangerous criminals.
Ashe finds that argument unpersuasive. “We could have cameras controlled by the state police looking at every single person’s front door in the state of Vermont, and that would go a long way towards public safety and catching criminals,” the senator suggests. “But the public would obviously think that’s an invasion of their lives and privacy.”
Access to the license-plate data collected by police agencies is strictly limited, counters VIAC’s Lauer. While local police agencies can access their own plate data, only six people at VIAC — a mix of sworn officers and civilian analysts — can perform a statewide search of an individual license plate.
Before Lauer’s team will perform such a search, he says it confirms that the plate query relates to an active criminal investigation with a verified case number.
With 30 police agencies using the plate scanners — and each scanner capable of identifying thousands of plates an hour — ACLU of Vermont executive director Allen Gilbert says it’s reasonable to assume that the VIAC has logged a staggering number of license plates, each with a time and location stamp. But so far, at least, authorities aren’t saying how much data they’ve amassed.
Lauer says, “I have no idea how many plates are in the system,” stressing that the state police database only contains plate numbers — and not the driver names associated with them. Likewise, Lauer says he doesn’t know how many individual plate searches the center has performed for police departments trying to track a particular vehicle. His best guest is “dozens.”
Seven Days filed a public-records request with the state to find out where, if anywhere, police plate readers photographed license plates belonging to two editorial staff members. But the state denied the request under the legal exemption for records pertaining to the investigation and detection of crime. Seven Days appealed that denial to Commissioner Flynn, arguing that the staffers are not — to our knowledge — under criminal investigation. But that, too, was turned down.
Lauer says there’s good reason to prevent regular people from using public-records law to search for specific plate histories — and to closely monitor police use of the data. An officer “can’t just call up and say, ‘Hey, can you look up plate ABC123 and expect us to give it to him. Because for all we know, maybe he’s looking for his girlfriend.”
But when that jealous boyfriend is a known criminal, police can and do track him using license-plate data. Winooski’s Sgt. Cram says he recently asked the VIAC to perform a statewide plate search to track down a suspect wanted for aggravated domestic assault.
“They ran his plate in their database and said he’s been pinged by plate readers in the Hartford area numerous times,” Cram says, adding that the hits were logged before the abuser was a suspect. “I called Hartford police and said, ‘Keep an eye out for this guy.’ I had him entered into the database as ‘wanted.’”
But the plate trail went cold, so Cram got more aggressive. Armed with a subpoena, he compelled AT&T to track the suspect’s movements using the location of his cellphone. Within a few minutes, the company had pinpointed the suspect on Church Street in Burlington, emailed the info to Cram and Winooski police had him in handcuffs.
Cellphone tracking requires a court order, like Cram’s subpoena, but at present, following someone’s license-plate movements does not. Cram, for one, says requiring a warrant to perform plate searches wouldn’t be a huge inconvenience. “It’s 40 minutes of typing and three hours waiting on a judge,” he says. Winooski cops aren’t allowed to search individual plates themselves; as a safeguard, department policy makes them send requests through VIAC.
Burlington police officers, on the other hand, are free to search their own data, according to Schirling.
As advanced as the plate reader is, the technology has its limitations. It doesn’t read well through falling snow. On the day Cram demonstrated the device, the scanner failed to capture dozens of passing cars. Another flaw is somewhat ironic: The scanners can’t read Vermont Strong license plates at all.
Also, the info loaded onto the plate scanners is sometimes out of date. While cruising down Main Street in Winooski last week, Cram’s laptop started blaring when the scanner hit on a Toyota RAV4 with an expired registration sticker. Cram followed the car as it turned into a bank parking lot, but continued past after he recognized the driver. “I stopped him yesterday,” Cram said. “He registered his vehicle. It just hasn’t been updated in the DMV system yet. I think they update their system once a week.”
The sheer volume of information being amassed by Vermont police — through plate readers, cellphone-tracking data and other tools — worries privacy advocates such as the ACLU’s Gilbert. “There’s just all the pieces in place that if somebody wanted to turn this into a pretty far-reaching surveillance system, where people’s whereabouts could be tracked anywhere in the state, it wouldn’t be that hard,” Gilbert says.
VIAC’s Lauer admits the license-plate system could be abused by those with access. “Anything could be abused. People have misused the NCIC program,” he says. “But there’s checks and balances, and people get caught. Is anything 100 percent? No. But to the degree we can, we certainly do manage and monitor it.”
Importantly, Lauer says, there have been no reports of abuse since the plate readers came online two years ago. Even Ashe admits he’s heard no instances of plate-reader misuse. “This is about making sure that the public is comfortable with their use,” he says, “and to make sure we strike the right balance between law enforcement and privacy.”
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.
The print version of this article was headlined "License to Snoop? Vermont Legislature Considers Limiting Scanner Surveillance".