Technology prompts privacy concerns
BUCKHANNON – Since the Buckhannon Police Department acquired a license plate reader last month, the move has generated controversy and concern among residents and city officials, even prompting one individual to file a Freedom of Information request regarding the apparatus.
The topic reared its head most recently at Thursday’s City Council meeting, when Police Chief Matt Gregory said he wanted to take a few moments to address questions and in some cases, public outcry about the LPR.
Gregory explained that license plate readers are comprised of three cameras mounted to one of the city’s police cruisers. The LPR is programmed to recognize license plates, take photographs of them and then transfer the sequence of letters or numbers into a digital signature.
“It’s doing nothing more than what a human eye would do in a public area, only obviously it’s a machine, it’s doing it a lot quicker, a lot more efficiently,” Gregory said.
The LPR then compares the license plate number to a “hot list” of license plates that have been flagged for a variety of reasons.
“Commonly, among those (reasons) are stolen vehicles,” Gregory said. “It could also include stolen license plates, Amber Alerts, perhaps a vehicle was just involved in a robbery a few counties away and it is known to be headed in this direction.”
Gregory said he wanted to emphasize that the LPR does not reveal personal information, such as names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and addresses.
Should the LPR indicate there is match, or “hit,” between a scanned license plate and a license plate number on the “hot list,” officers are trained to perform a visual verification and a verification through the National Crime Information Center database prior to making a traffic stop.
“Only then (if the scanned license plate is verified visually and through NCIC) do we take action accordingly and do as we’re trained to do,” the police chief said. “If you look at some of the success stories out there nationally, they speak for themselves as far as the positive impact that these can have on communities.”
Gregory said he believes LPRs also function as a deterrent to lawbreakers who may have otherwise seen Buckhannon “as a safe haven for criminal activity.”
Councilman Ron Pugh and Councilman Tom O’Neill, however, raised questions about the potential for abuse of such technology.
“So you say there’s no way this system could be used by a corrupt person to follow another person or to get information of any kind about them?” Pugh asked. Gregory repeated that LPRs don’t reveal private or personal information.
“But is there any way an officer can put a plate in to track a plate?” Pugh persisted.
“We can but those would be put in for criminal justice purposes only,” Gregory answered. “There are policies and procedures in place that govern the usage of this system. Those are pursuant to the participation agreement we entered into with the fusion center (agency that loaned the equipment to the BPD).”
O’Neill said citizen concerns expressed to him have had more to do with the “secondary potential in this system.”
“Let’s say I drive my vehicle by the cruiser and my plate is scanned. No hit or anything. Is my vehicle’s location and the date and time of that location kept in a record?” O’Neill asked Gregory.
Gregory said that although the single laptop computer in the vehicle is alone not capable of storing such a vast amount of information, the police department does have access to those records through a server maintained by the West Virginia State Police.
“It’s a valid concern,” Gregory said, “but I really need to stress that the only reason we would start searching plates is if we had a criminal justice concern.”
“That’s the only reason you guys would do it,” O’Neill responded, “but there are revelations every day about the National Security Agency and computers and people getting tracked and there are a lot of concerns about data privacy… The issue is, can somebody use this system to track my or anybody else’s movements over time?”
Gregory said it’s likely some type of audit is in place to deter any inappropriate use of LPR data.
City Recorder Rich Clemens pointed out that cellphone companies have the ability to track their customers, whether GPS functions are enabled or not.
“I’d be a little more concerned about the cellphone company having access to those records than the police officers,” Clemens said.
O’Neill and Councilman Dave Thomas requested that council members be provided with copies of the LPR participation/policy agreement. Mayor Kenny Davidson said those documents will be placed in council members’ mailboxes.
Addressing Gregory, Pugh said he was aware the police chief had recently received a Freedom of Information Act request from a private citizen.
“And are you complying with everything this person wanted?” Pugh asked.
“Yes sir, everything that was within our power,” Gregory replied.
City Attorney Dave McCauley informed Pugh that such inquiries should be directed to Clemens, also the city’s designated FOIA officer.
Clemens said the city had
“The request has been filled and now it’s up to the individual to pay for copies, but we actually have very little information to provide,” he said.
In a Jan. 6 Facebook post, city resident Jeremy McGowan announced he was planning to submit a FOIA request to the city so that “I can better understand what justification was used saying that the small town of Buckhannon needs such an intrusive and potentially abused system (the LPR) when an officer with a radio and probably (sic) cause can accomplish the same.”
McGowan posted the document he planned to submit on his Facebook page and tagged O’Neill and another attorney in the post.
On Jan. 13, McGowan posted a reply letter from Clemens, which states that, “Your (McGowan’s) request for a copy of various records includes a number of items that do not exist as part of any records held by the Buckhannon City Police Department of the (sic) City of Buckhannon.” Clemens’ letter goes on to say that the city will provide 60 pages of documents at a cost of 75 cents per page. In addition, Clemens said he’d estimated that two hours of staff research time would be required to fulfill McGowan’s request and that the city planned to charge McGowan $25 per hour. McGowan’s total cost, Clemens’ letter states, is $95.
In a Facebook message to The Inter-Mountain, McGowan on Friday said he believes the city is violating the Freedom of Information Act by attempting to charge “excessive” amounts of money for copies and labor costs.
“I replied with state law, case law and other documentation to show how they are in violation of the FOIA – and resubmitted my request for the information,” McGowan wrote.
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