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Privacy and Data Retention: Unanswered Questions in Automatic License Plate Reader Discussion

Board of Selectmen did not take a final position on the topic at its July 12 meeting.

Of the nearly one dozen people who spoke at Tuesday night’s Board of Selectmen on accepting a for the , the large majority said they had concerns with their privacy and how the information would be retained and shared.

Ultimately, Selectmen Chairman Betsy DeWitt said the board would not take a final position on the matter after the hearing, as unanswered questions remain as to how people’s data would be stored and how to best balance privacy issues.

Police Chief Daniel O’Leary said the town had until Sept. 30 to decide whether to accept the $20,000 grant for the license plate reader, a tool he said that would be a value to public safety, making policing more effective and efficient.

“At the same time, I do recognize that people have some concerns about information retention,” O’Leary said.

If the reader is purchased through the grant, the town would be required to store information obtained from it and share that data with the state. O’Leary said he’s been asked by state officials to sit on the committee to draft a statewide policy on the data retention issue, as the state does not yet have a policy on the nascent technology.

During the public hearing, residents said they didn’t trust that their personal information – registration information, plus where their car is spotted and when – would be kept private, especially since it would be shared with state law enforcement officials, and potentially beyond that to law enforcement in other states or at the federal level.

“It’s violating the free exercise of our civil liberties,” said Susan Allen. “We don’t feel safer.”

Resident David Klafter also spoke about citizens’ civil liberties.

“Do we want to add another layer to the growing web of public surveillance?” he asked. “If we don’t want to draw the line here, where do we want to draw it?”

One resident, Jan Presser, spoke in favor of the license plate reader, saying crime is happening, and the device would not invade privacy when it would take pictures of license plates in public places.

“I wonder where the common sense is,” he said. “Where is slippery slope? Is this going to lead us to less crime? Is that a bad thing?”

Another speaker, however, asked about other costs associated with the equipment.

“It’s not clear to me what this is actually going to cost in the end,” said Gordon Bennett.

Selectman Jesse Mermell said she would not support accepting the grant, though she thanked O’Leary for his work getting it.

“I extremely uncomfortable with taking this money from the state and what strings come with that,” she said. “If we’re required to submit the data, our policies are moot.”

DeWitt noted that the issue could come up at the next selectmen's meeting in two weeks, or at a later date. Advance notice would be given, she said.

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