Your car’s travels are being tagged
Officials see license plate recording as crime-fighting tool
Several local law enforcement agencies in Fayette County are using tag-reader cameras on some patrol units to assist in identifying stolen vehicles or the owners of those vehicles who are wanted in connection with various crimes.
While different systems are used in Fayette County, each agency said the data collected from the vast majority of moving or parked vehicles is not used and remains in storage until the data is deleted.
While not an intended use specific to local law enforcement agencies, the fact remains that current technology would allow for a given vehicle to be tracked since the location of the tag reader camera, as well as the subject vehicle, is included in the software program.
While some citizens see tag reader cameras as yet another way to invade their privacy in an increasing sea of data collection methods, local law enforcement agencies maintain that the cameras are another tool that can be employed to apprehend law-breakers.
Peachtree City Police Chief H.C. “Skip” Clark said the department implemented the use of four Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) tag reader units in 2011. The units were purchased during vehicle acquisition and as an option to the department’s in-car video system offered by Coban Technologies.
Clark said the units compare a downloaded database to captured images taken by the camera unit.
“When the ALPR sees a match to the database, the unit gives the officer both a visual and audible alert. Our units download updated databases daily that contain offenses such as wanted/stolen vehicles/tags, wanted persons, terrorist watch lists, sex offenders, suspended registrations, insurance violations and other registration violations,” Clark said.
Clark said the data generated from units integrates into the department’s 44-terabyte video server and currently remains in secure storage until manually purged. The captured tag images currently only utilize 4 gigabytes of space.
The ALPR units do not provide instant feedback/returns as to the identity of the vehicle’s owner, the chief said. This is only accomplished if an inquiry is made through the Georgia Crime Information Center in accordance with established requirements, Clark said.
The system can also be used to search for partial tag matches that have been provided by officers, victims, or witnesses, Clark added.
As for the amount of time the data is stored, Clark said that data has not been purged since its beginning two years ago.
Clark said the department does not currently share data or deposit it into any national repository for ALPR data. It is maintained in house and is only accessible by one officer, he said.
Peachtree City Police will add one additional ALPR this fiscal year in order to afford each of the four shifts the use of the system as well as the department’s Community Response Team, Clark said.
The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office currently uses a data storage system by California-based Vigilant Solutions. Sheriff Barry Babb said the former tag reader system used on one patrol vehicle in-house since 2009 was abandoned after numerous problems with that system.
Babb’s office currently has seven vehicles outfitted with tag reader cameras that are programmed to capture a series of numbers such as those found on license plates, though potentially anything bearing a set of numbers, such as a mailbox, can activate the camera.
Once read, the license plate is checked against the Vigilant Solutions state and national “hotlist” database that lists both vehicles reported stolen or involved in criminal activity and owners with an outstanding warrant. If found on the hotlist, the information is provided to the deputy immediately, Babb said.
Though only in use for just over a month, Babb said the system has already assisted in the retrieval of one stolen vehicle and the apprehension of eight wanted individuals.
“It is important to note that this data contains no personal identifying information and the data will only be searched for legitimate law enforcement purposes. There are controls in place which limit how the data can be accessed and rules for how to use it,” said Babb.
The tag reader data sent to Vigilant is stored on the company’s servers in metro Washington, D.C. Babb said his office determines how long the data is stored before being erased.
“I understand that data storage is a topic of concern. Agencies have found that the data can be invaluable in all types of investigations from missing persons and theft cases to armed home invasion robberies and homicides. The value of this tool can be very significant. That is why I am carefully considering the minimum amount of time we will retain detection data and still be effective in criminal investigations. At this time we do not have a defined retention period as we have only been operating a little over a month,” Babb said.
“I am considering erasing all data after one year or less. No one in public safety knows what the best position is on retention and sharing of this data,” Babb said. “We tend to err on the side of caution and hold onto data because you never want to lose something that might solve crimes, especially those that are violent in nature.”
Babb said Vigilant is audited to insure compliance with its agreement with local agencies to delete the data within the specified timeframe. Vigilant maintains that it has no data-sharing agreements with other local, state or national agencies. If sharing were to occur it would be the decision of the specific agency to do so, Babb said.
As for the agencies the sheriff’s office shares with, Babb said those include most law enforcement agencies in Georgia. Requests from agencies outside the state are decided on a case-by-case basis, Babb said.
Below, Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb shows location of one tag recording device on a patrol car. Photo/Ben Nelms.
The Fayetteville Police Department recently began using the Vigilant Solutions system and has four patrol cars outfitted with tag reader cameras.
As is the case with the sheriff’s office, Police Chief Scott Pitts said data is stored in Vigilant’s secure law-enforcement-only data center.
License plate reads will be stored on local machines for no more than 31 days and, by agreement, will be retained by Vigilant for one year.
At the end of the one-year term, the Vigilant system automatically deletes the data, Pitts said.
As it pertains to data-sharing, Pitts said Fayetteville data is shared with other law enforcement agencies on the Vigilant server if they wish to receive the information.
The Tyrone Police Department does not currently use a tag reader camera system.