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License plate surveillance trades privacy for safety, but NNY drivers have little to worry about

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License plate surveillance irks privacy advocates across the nation, but local law enforcement authorities insist that information concerning north country drivers’ whereabouts is not being stored.

“It’s just another tool we use; that’s all it is. There’s nothing that’s being archived,” St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said.

Three sets of license plate readers mounted on patrol cars in his department are useful for tracking down burglary suspects, missing children and elderly drivers who are reported to be “wandering,” Mr. Wells said.

But the growing use of the technology and the fact that many police agencies have been storing data of all vehicles scanned — including those belonging to “innocent” people — raise some serious concerns, said Melanie Trimble, New York Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Region chapter director.

“We continue to have serious concerns,” she said. “It’s just ridiculous. Why gather all this information if it’s not being kept for future use? When you gather information on innocent individuals, you’re putting their privacy at risk for no reason.”

In a July report, the American Civil Liberties Union said these systems are “configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen.”

The Syracuse Post-Standard reported Sunday that Onondaga County keeps the license plate pictures in its database for a year, and that state police maintain their own database where information is stored for five years.

According to the ACLU’s report, Dutchess County also retains license plate information “that has not been flagged as part of an investigation or incident” for a year.

“This constant monitoring and permanent recording violates our privacy in a number of respects,” the ACLU report said.

“The vast majority of license plate data are collected from people who have done nothing wrong at all. Often, only a fraction of 1 percent of reads are hits — and an even smaller fraction result in an arrest.”

Lewis County Undersheriff James M. Monnat said two department vehicles are equipped with these reader systems to check plate numbers uploaded to the system and alert deputies when it gets a “hit,” for instance, on a suspended license plate or stolen vehicle.

“It’s definitely a useful tool for law enforcement,” Mr. Monnat said. “But storing the data, that’s not something we do.”

Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau said the department has two sets of license plate readers that are “reset” at the end of an officer’s shift.

“We don’t store any data,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Capt. Cheryl A. Clark said that the Watertown City Police Department owns a plate reader, which has been mounted on several different patrol cars over the past six or seven years, but that the department also does not back up and store the data.

“We don’t take the information off of the system and store it,” she said.

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