Council wants controls before buying license plate scanners

Council wants controls before buying license plate scanners

Michele Ellson

An audience of mostly swimmers packs Alameda's City Hall on Tuesday.

The City Council unanimously gave Alameda police a green light Tuesday to pursue funding for systems that will photograph and store data on tens of thousands of license plates – but said they want clear policies for the storage and use of that data in place before they allow the department to buy them.

“I would feel more comfortable approving this as a council member if I knew what policies were going to apply,” Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said.

City Manager John Russo said city staff will work on policies and will schedule a town hall meeting to discuss the privacy and civil liberties concerns that consideration of the automated license plate recognition systems have raised.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to wonder,” Russo said. “The mere fact that we have already lost so much control over our privacy and our private actions is no reason to allow local government to intrude further into that sphere without a reason or a conversation about what is appropriate for law enforcement to have and share.”

Acting Police Chief Paul Rolleri said that he wants the systems, which photograph license plates and convert the numbers to machine-readable data, to more easily retrieve stolen cars and missing persons and to aid criminal investigations. He said few members of the department would have access to stored data and that an audit trail would be put in place to track who accesses data and for what reason.

“There’s a right to know, and a need to know. We’re not just randomly accessing information and providing it to other people,” Rolleri said.

The department captured about 97,000 license plates during a recent trial of a plate reader system, which brought back 84 or 85 hits, Rolleri said – some of which were duplicates. He said the system helped the officer using it retrieve one stolen car and track another whose driver tossed a replica gun out the window during a police chase. It identified a third stolen vehicle while the car that carried the plate reader was parked, but that car was gone before the officer returned.

The systems, which photograph plates from 40 to 50 feet away, may also capture images of cars’ drivers and passengers, Rolleri said.

Councilman Stewart Chen said he understood the benefit of such a system, but he was concerned about hackers accessing the massive amounts of data that would be gathered by it.

“How do we assure our citizens that the information is secure?” Chen asked.

Residents said they’re concerned about the length of time the data could be retained – Rolleri said he’d like to keep it for a year – and about plans to feed the data into a Northern California “fusion center” where it would be shared with other police agencies. They said they wanted promises the information – which would include license plate numbers and the times and locations where they are spotted by the system – wouldn’t be shared with insurers or used in civil lawsuits.

“I would like ironclad assurances that this information is not going to be sold to a third party,” onetime City Council candidate Adam Gillitt said.

But not everyone thought the readers were a bad idea. Mike Robles-Wong said the technology could have aided a police agency he once worked for as they searched for a serial rapist.

“If you’re comparing your privacy rights to the public’s safety – this particular issue, you have to support the chief,” Robles-Wong said.

Rolleri said the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which would store Alameda’s license plate data, limits access to and use of the data, and that the fusion center creates an audit trail that it checks at least once a year to ensure agencies are complying with the rules.

The center’s policy allows law enforcement officials “with a need and a right to know” to use the technology to locate vehicles that were stolen, wanted or the subject of investigation; people with arrest warrants; witnesses to and victims of violent crime; missing people; supporting a range of public safety departments in their efforts to identify vehicles associated with targets of criminal investigations; and protection of critical infrastructure sites and participants at special events.

The policy allows the systems to be used to gather data within public view, but prohibits using it for the sole purpose of collecting individual activities protected by the First Amendment. Data on vehicles that aren’t linked to crimes or criminals can be stored for up to a year, while data that is linked to a criminal investigation can be retained for up to five years.

Data may be released to “any governmental entity with an authorized law enforcement or public safety purpose for access to such data” and to owners and operators of designated critical infrastructure if it is believed to be the target of surveillance for the purpose of terrorist attack or criminal activity.

Mayor Marie Gilmore questioned whether the license plate information could help an unauthorized user identify someone.

“I think that’s what all of us are worried about, that nexus connection – here’s my license plate, now you know who I am,” Mayor Marie Gilmore said.

Rolleri said the data collected by the readers isn’t linked to registration information or other personally identifying information; police can access registration information separately.

“What I’m asking to do by getting these license plate readers is to help us find these vehicles that wouldn’t already be remarkable,” he said. “We already have the ability to call into dispatch or type that up in the car. The license plate reader tells me that in five seconds.”


Submitted by SKS (not verified) on Fri, Oct 4, 2013

Why in gods name does tiny little Alameda need this totalitarian system?

This is utter madness and is unacceptable. The city council should be ashamed of their approval of license plate scanners. They provide literally NO additional safety or value.

Stop trying to do ridiculous authoritarian BS just to make yourself feel as though you are on par with the "big boys" f politics that are killing this country.

Take a look around you - we should make Alameda a bastion of privacy, not an outpost of stupidity.

Submitted by JHouse (not verified) on Sun, Oct 6, 2013

I thoroughly agree, SKS. This is one of several big brother, Agenda 21 moves we've seen lately in our beloved Alameda. The taking by eminent domain by the federal government of the land near Crab Cove that the park department had plans for in order to build unneeded apartments and the federally funded building of a new "emergency operations center" for APD at Buena Vista and Grand. Not to mention the Webster Street Smart Corridor.