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License Plate Readers Raise Privacy Concerns In Maryland

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Technology that can read license plates of passing cars has raised the ire of Maryland privacy advocates.
NBC Washington
Technology that can read license plates of passing cars has raised the ire of Maryland privacy advocates.

Police throughout the region use automated license plate readers as a crime-fighting tool, but privacy concerns have law enforcement in Montgomery County, Maryland on the defense.

Unlike in D.C., the readers in Montgomery County are mobile. For example, they can be moved into areas that have had a series of burglaries. The devices can read up to 1,000 license plates an hour. Civil liberties groups are concerned the information the readers collect can be used for non-crime fighting purposes.

Montgomery County state's attorney John McCarthy does not believe that is happening: "It's not intrusive. It's allowing us to record nothing else than what is already legally visible to anybody who watches your car pass on a roadway."

Another concern is whether police would sell the information collected to private vendors. That was on the mind of county councilman Phil Andrews as he questioned assistant police chief Russell Hamlin during a hearing Thursday morning.

"That would undermine the public's confidence in the technology, as well as be unethical," says Andrews. "Absolutely, I asked earlier for a little bit of confidence in this so we could use it the right way. If we were to do that, the public should have no confidence in this."

Whether or not the technology compromises privacy, evidence shows that it is effective at law enforcement. Police saw that license plate readers were instrumental in locating a stolen car in the case of murdered American University accounting professor Sue Ann Marcum.

A George Mason University study show that about one-third of large police departments across the country use license plate readers.

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