Council signs off on license plate readers

Council signs off on license plate readers

Michele Ellson
Alameda Police Department

Alameda police will soon be equipped with license plate readers that can scan and store thousands of license plate numbers that can be automatically checked against lists of stolen cars and wanted criminal suspects and saved for future use in criminal investigations.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the police department to spend up to $80,000 to purchase four of the license plate readers from Livermore-based Vigilant Solutions. Police Chief Paul Rolleri said the readers should be operational by the end of this summer.

Council members dismissed concerns expressed by some residents and privacy advocates who said they think collecting the information violates the privacy of people who have done nothing wrong and who have expressed concerns about it being misused. They said the license plate and location data the systems will collect is already effectively public since the cars it will track are on public streets and that they feel the department is putting adequate safeguards in place to insure proper use of that data.

“I do understand a number of the concerns that were raised, especially from minorities who fear being tracked. At the same time, I feel there are adequate safeguards in this policy,” Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said.

In a report to the council, Rolleri said the readers help police weed out vehicles of interest – stolen cars and ones bearing missing people or criminal suspects – from the thousands of cars that cross their paths.

“It automates a tedious, distracting, and manual process that officers regularly complete in their daily operations, and vastly improves their efficiency and effectiveness in identifying vehicles of interest among the hundreds or thousands they observe during routine patrol,” the report says.

Rolleri said the plate readers will help the department combat what he said was a rise in vehicle thefts and other property crimes and to help other departments by finding suspects who may pass through Alameda.

“It’s not just about our crime rate. It’s about being a cooperative partner with other law enforcement agencies as well,” he said Tuesday.

Officers captured 97,000 license plate records during a 2013 trial of one of the systems, 85 of them matches to “hot lists” of suspected criminals, stolen vehicles and missing people.

Only two people came to Tuesday’s meeting to speak out against the purchase of the license plate readers, saying they don’t think the data should be retained and questioning who would access it and how it would be used. But several residents and privacy advocates following the meeting’s progress on The Alamedan’s Twitter feed questioned whether the readers will really help combat crime and also, whether the data they collect should be retained.

“Alameda should not adopt ALPR w/o a policy spelling out how the public will exercise oversight,” wrote Matt Cagle, whose Twitter profile lists him as a policy fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which has raised strong concerns about police departments’ use of the plate readers and retention of the data they collect.

A draft policy for use and storage of the data the scanners will collect – plate numbers and the locations where they were collected – was presented to the council for its review but did not need council approval Tuesday. Still, council members sought and won a pair of changes to the policy: The removal of a clause that would have permitted stationary cameras to be erected and an additional audit detailing the department’s use of the data the systems collect during the first year they are used.

The new draft of the department’s license plate reader policy permits most of the data to be stored for up to six months – less than the year Rolleri originally sought. Data the department determines it will need for a civil case or criminal investigation could be stored on portable media for longer, the draft policy says.

Ashcraft said she’d gotten e-mails from residents who feared the systems could be used to racially profile drivers or to track where people worship or attend school, while Chen sought assurances the systems and the data they collect will be secure. The draft policy prohibits using the data for personal reasons or to harass or intimidate people or groups. If put into effect as written, anyone who violates the policy could be fired.

The policy also bars release of the data – even someone’s own personal data – through public records requests.

Rolleri said the department will also work to draft an agreement to store and share the data it collects with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a “fusion” center that collects and shares data among participating police agencies. Until then, the data is expected to be stored on servers maintained by Vigilant Solutions, though it wasn’t immediately clear how or if the company would use the data Alameda collects.

The company’s website boasts a national database containing more than 1.8 billion “detections” culled from law enforcement and private data that it says is available to law enforcement subscribers; in a staff report to the council, Rolleri said the information “provides intangible value from an investigative perspective.” He said Tuesday he had “no interest” in sharing the information Alameda collects with any private entities the company may work with, though he would be willing to allow the company to share it with other law enforcement personnel. A contract with the company has not yet been drafted.

The department also needs to train officers to use the readers and decide who will be allowed to access the data they collect for investigations.

Police first sought permission to buy the license plate readers in October. At that time, the council said the department could pursue grant funding for one of the plate readers, which was estimated to cost about $22,000, but the police department wasn’t able to obtain the federal homeland security funding it sought for the tool.

Council members also sought controls on use of the data the systems would collect. And city staff held a public meeting in February to discuss implementation of the license plate reader systems.

The money for the plate readers will come from funds the department hasn’t spent due to staffing vacancies.


Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Wed, May 21, 2014

The promise that APD will only keep the data for six months seems especially meaningless, given that it is shared with the "Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a “fusion” center that collects and shares data among participating police agencies."

Limiting how long APD keeps it illustrates the inherent dishonesty as to what is really going on with the life of that information.

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Wed, May 21, 2014

Unfortunately this and all data collected on all of us will be properly used. Just a matter of time!
Hopefully laws will be enacted to help keep individual liberties somewhat alive for those who come after our generation.

For all the good security it may effect , individual liberties will suffer over the coming decades.

1984 has been realized. Orwell's vision is not just about completed it has far exceeded his fantasy!!!!

Submitted by That Guy (not verified) on Wed, May 21, 2014

Did the approved policy include details of who would have access to the data, or did Ms. Ashcraft specifically state what the Police Department has put into place to protect against misuse?

Why not make it a misdemeanor to violate the policy? People at the NSA who violate internal protocols are also subject to firing, didn't seem to stop them from investigating their own friends and family.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Wed, May 21, 2014

A few follow ups:

My understanding of what would happen when the data goes to NCRIC is that it would be deleted after six months if APD's policy was to delete it after six months. Though I suppose it would never hurt to double check.

The draft policy does not outline who specifically has access to the data - that is TBD. It does say anyone who violates it could face civil and criminal prosecution, though the specifics of the charges, fines etc they could face are not explicitly spelled out. I'll post it at the bottom of this story.

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Wed, May 21, 2014

All data collected on each of us will be used for legitimate and illegitimate purposes.

The more that each person's complete life and experience data is housed and collated in the hands of the government and other secret agencies the more we each can be assured that it will be used against individuals especially those who are defenders of the constitution and especially the Bill of Rights!

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Thu, May 22, 2014

Once the information is collected, history, personal experience and common sense all indicate that it will travel in unwanted directions, toward bad purposes and unhindered by laws, agreements and penalties. To believe otherwise is extremely naive.

Submitted by Michele Horaney (not verified) on Thu, May 22, 2014

Next City Council meeting is June 3. We all need to be there to speak up and out about this.

Submitted by Chuck M (not verified) on Thu, May 22, 2014

Driving is a privilege and not a right. Since license plates are visible to the public, how is that different than a camera recognizing it. The Bay Area bridges moved from FastTrak transponders to license plate recognition for toll collections. Cities would not need their own if there was a license plate reader at each freeway entrance or exit and law enforcement can track car movements without the need for an Amber or Silver alert. If civil libertarians have unwarranted fears about about privacy, does that mean cars should not have license plates you don’t want to be identified. Privacy won't protect you from becoming a victim of a crime.

Donna Eyestone's picture
Submitted by Donna Eyestone on Thu, May 22, 2014

I have spent hours and hours to attend every meeting about the use of the ALPR in Alameda - from when APD first wanted permission to apply for the grant, to the public meeting in the library, and then the approval at this last Council meeting. There were a few of us at the first meeting - some spoke in favor of the devices, and then myself and others spoke out against the use of them. It was probably 50/50 for/against at that meeting.

At the Library meeting -- the draft policy was presented and many people spoke out against the use of ALPR. There were maybe 40-60 people present -- and I'd guess 90% of us spoke out against using them at all - and certainly about storing the data. Among some other changes, the length of time the data is stored was reduced from 1 year to 6 months as a result of this meeting.

As one of the two people present at the Council meeting this week - both of us spoke out against them, no one spoke in favor of them. CM Ashcraft seemed to have lots of comments emailed to her -- all the questions she asked were sent to her questioning the use of ALPR in Alameda. Ultimately - with a 5-0 vote - the police dept will now go ahead and buy these 4 units (I bet they have put in the order already), will mount them on patrol cars, and drive around town with them going day and night.

Though they don't "track" you -- on a small island such as ours -- and 4 cars running ALPR 24x7, your car will likely be databased several times a day -- even if it never leaves your driveway.

The database then will go to NCRIC "for 6 months" -- but within that 6 months -- it seems pretty clear that NCRIC can sell the data to whomever they want --- making the issue of the records retention for 6 months rather than 1 year still not acceptable to me.

I requested no data retention -- if they feel they must use ALPR at all, then they can scan, don't get a hit, immediately purge. But alas, that is not what was adopted.

Biking and walking around this fair island doesn't require a license plate -- and could be the biggest freedom we can still enjoy.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Fri, May 23, 2014

Chuck M, you miss the point. When big government and big business collect vast amounts of detailed information from many different sources including but not limited to license plate readers, online activity, facial recognition, public databases, minute-to-minute cell phone location, traffic cameras, license documents, tax documents, registration documents, and then add them all together, what privacy do you believe you have left?

Suppose for instance that the IRS questioned a deduction and produced evidence that seemed to indicate your cell phone or your car may have been in a location that would have made that deduction impossible, what record would you produce years later to refute it?

Suppose info about your daily coming and going is hacked and now thieves know when to break into your home. Since the government can't seem to hold onto the most sensitive of data reliably, stolen data would seem inevitable.

We already have pictures of your back yard on line courtesy of Zillow, Google and others. Who gave them the right to take pictures of your back yard and publish them online?

Chuck, can you see the creeping and insidious nature of this? Now we have Common Core testing that apparently gathers hundreds of points of private information about our children:

How long til that info is stolen, used improperly or is sold to corporations?

I'm surprised anyone would think that increased local data collection is a real plus.

Submitted by Ken Harrison (not verified) on Sat, May 24, 2014

It is disingenuous to suggest that these readers will help trace and recover stolen automobiles. I had a car stolen from in front of my house. I knew about it within an hour and gave a police report. Within that hour, however, my car was taken to East Oakland and stripped of a laundry list of parts and then left to die on the streets. There is no way that a license plate reader could have recovered my car.

I believe that much of the crime in this city originates in Oakland, but for that belief to devolve into a tracking system for all vehicles entering from or exiting to Oakland is to infringe on the privacy of the vast majority who do not bring crime into Alameda. At what point will citizens of either Oakland or Alameda be asked to defend their entry or exit patterns?

George Orwell was correct.

Submitted by B (not verified) on Sat, Aug 16, 2014

I was just pulled over and asked repeatedly by APD- where I was going, where I was coming from, whether was "from around these parts." What is this place, Pleasantville? I happen to be a white girl, born and raised in this sweet little town. I currently teach locally. My husband Cal graduate and recent MBA grad, who happened to be driving while I rode in the passengers seat, is definitely not white. He has dark skin and we were pulled over nearly in front of our home, on our way home from our church's softball game. If our plates were not scanned and found to have an issue, (which there was-- thank you DMV) there would have been no visible evidence that my registration had an issue. Now tell me, either we were "scanned" or the other possibility. Either way, it didn't feel right. In fact, I have NEVER been stopped for any reason in Alameda in my 20-something years of living here.