Lay out policies, costs before buying readers

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office might be right that license plate readers would help deputies prevent and solve crimes, but their use raises questions that should be answered in detail before they're deployed.

The first is what will be done with the data gathered, including how long it will be stored. And the second is the cost to operate them beyond their initial purchase with a federal grant.

There are serious privacy issues raised by their use, even fully recognizing that there is no expectation of privacy when traveling public roads with a state-issued license plate. License plate readers not only record the license plate number, but also the GPS location, time and date of the license plate photo. It's the accumulation of data over time and how it might be used that prompts privacy concerns, especially when the readers collect data on people who have done nothing wrong.

Capt. Toby McSwain told Hilton Head Island officials Monday that the Sheriff's Office would follow strict federal guidelines in using the license plate readers to ensure that the information is not abused or accessible to the public. But if there are federal guidelines in place to follow, there's scant evidence of them.

The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post report that data storage and use vary from state to state and police department to police department.

The Journal reports that a few states have guidelines for using the scanners. New Hampshire bans them; Maine requires data to be purged after 21 days unless it is part of an investigation. New Jersey requires officers to have "specific and articulable facts" of "possible criminal or terrorist activity" before looking up a car owner. A California agency plans to hold on to its data indefinitely.

The Post reports that the length of time data are retained by police agencies in the Washington metropolitan area vary greatly, from 30 days in Tacoma Park, Md., to three years in the District of Columbia.

Before the Sheriff's Office moves ahead, it should provide a detailed policy that includes how it will make sure the policy is followed and how it will prove that to the public. That could include an independent audit. After all, the state's Freedom of Information Act is law, but examples abound of its not being followed.

In a 2009 report, the International Association of Chiefs of Police points out that although license plates don't directly include personally identifiable information, they can be matched up through other databases with the identity of an individual.

To address privacy concerns, the association recommends that agencies using the readers clearly articulate the purpose for collecting license plate numbers; anticipate how the data will be used; and limit the use of the data to the stated purposes. They also should address any secondary uses of the information, such as turning it over to a third party, before they start using the readers.

As for cost, the Sheriff's Office plans to use a federal grant to purchase readers. A stationary camera costs $100,000, McSwain told Hilton Head Town Council's Public Safety Committee; a two-camera system mounted on a patrol car costs about $15,000. The federal grant would allow the Sheriff's Office to buy two mobile units for countywide use.

McSwain suggested buying a stationary camera for Hilton Head to be followed by a mobile one, if the town is interested or additional grants become available.

But he also said using the license plate readers would mean spending money on additional personnel.

"It's definitely going to generate more work to monitor the information coming in ... and would need someone out there to be able to respond to 'hits,'" McSwain said. "It's almost generating a call for service because the camera's capturing something and sending up a flag saying this person is a possible wanted subject."

Specific dollar figures need to be attached to this proposal. Last year, Town Council members turned down the opportunity to buy a fire-rescue boat with federal money, citing the $46,000 cost to certify existing staff and the annual costs of maintaining the boat.

The council had sound reasons for opposing that purchase, even with federal money. They should ask the same kind of questions about this proposal.