License number system bashed

Posted Jan. 18, 2010, at 11:53 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Privacy advocates are criticizing a new surveillance system used by South Portland police that automatically reads license plates, a system police defend as a tool to help solve crimes, find wanted individuals and locate missing persons.

South Portland is apparently Maine’s first community to use a system that can read license numbers and run them through national crime databases.

The system has produced several hits since the technology was installed Jan. 6, but none has led to enforcement actions.

“Information is gold in this field,” said South Portland police Lt. Frank Clark. “The more information we have and the earlier the officers have it, the safer it will make them. It gives them a quick red flag before they approach the situation.”

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But Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, said he worried the system could be used to gather information about residents, and that police could drive through a lot and record all the vehicles parked there.

“All of a sudden they would have reason to believe that I’m in this location, let’s say it’s a political rally,” said Damon. “Another sweep through a parking area might reveal I am there. Now, all of a sudden there is a track on me. To me, it’s too much of a concern that I might lose my privacy and freedoms that are afforded to me as a citizen of this state and nation.”

Damon has introduced legislation, presented to him by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, to ban technology that is used to gather broad information about private citizens.

Similar systems are used in about 25 states. South Portland police bought the system last fall with help from a federal grant.

Clark said the department opposes Damon’s proposed legislation.

He said technology has helped the department save lives.

“Surveillance is generally defined as the act of observing or monitoring individual groups,” Clark said in a statement. The system “does not do this. It does not observe people. It does not monitor people. It does not track people or their associations. It does what many good police officers have done by hand for many years, but does it much more efficiently and effectively.”

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