Almanac

News - June 12, 2013

Menlo weighs privacy vs. surveillance

by Sandy Brundage

On the heels of an announcement of the long-awaited Belle Haven police substation, the Menlo Park council found itself mulling over privacy rights versus surveillance.

With revived interest in expanding Menlo Park's law enforcement facilities comes a look at how to widen the police department's technological capabilities as well. In addition to extending East Palo Alto's ShotSpotter gunfire detection system to cover Belle Haven and eventually adding surveillance cameras in key sites around the city, Police Chief Robert Jonsen plans to deploy up to three mobile automated license plate readers.

The department recently borrowed one plate reader from Daly City to monitor a funeral, Chief Jonsen told the council on June 4, and has also asked San Mateo County to loan its five units out as needed.

The mobile automated license plate readers, used by East Palo Alto as well as the county and other local jurisdictions, run hundreds of plates a minute within a 360-degree arc.

While the council hopes to see the readers up and running in Menlo Park sooner rather than later, with Councilwoman Kirsten Keith expressing concern that the summer could see a spike in crime, it also wants to settle the issue of what happens to the collected data. Vice Mayor Ray Mueller asked that the council first establish a privacy policy before police deploy the readers within the city.

Chief Jonsen said that captured data is retained within a database in San Francisco, which also stores information from other jurisdictions. Councilwoman Keith said that the sheriff told her the county's policy is to keep the data for a year, then purge it. The chief said that a one-year retention policy is considered best practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been monitoring data collection by law enforcement; it recommends keeping the information for as short a period as possible and limiting access. Tiburon, for example, stores the data from automated license plate readers for only 30 days unless it relates to a specific criminal investigation.

Mayor Peter Ohtaki asked that staff present a report on privacy policy during a July council meeting.

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