Almanac

Viewpoint - July 3, 2013

Editorial: Go slowly on automated license plate readers

In yet another sign of technology's ability to tail us wherever we go, the Menlo Park Police Department plans to buy up to three mobile automated license plate readers for officers to use while on patrol. The 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. This would no doubt be a boon to investigations, but privacy rights advocates have raised important issues the council should work out before the readers hit the streets.

The problem arises from retention of the captured data. Menlo Park, like other local jurisdictions, would send its data for storage in a regional database maintained in San Francisco. Such a massive collection of data could allow police to track the movements of individual vehicles throughout the course of a day, whether the occupants are engaged in criminal activity or not. Someone attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for instance, may feel violated by knowing that information can now land in the hands of police without any probable cause.

During a June 4 discussion, Councilman Ray Mueller said Menlo Park should first establish a privacy policy that dictates how long the data can be stored before police start using the readers. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office retains its data for one year, which Menlo Park Police Chief Robert Jonsen described as best practice. Some organizations, however, including the American Civil Liberties Union, recommend keeping the information for the shortest amount of time possible, with limited access. Police in Tiburon, a Marin County community, hold the data for just 30 days unless a plate is related to a criminal investigation.

According to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, more than 30 government agencies in the Bay Area use the license-plate readers and undoubtedly more will sign up soon. The report cited the experience of San Leandro resident Michael Katz-Lacabe, whose two cars had been photographed 112 times by a single San Leandro patrol car. One photo showed Mr. Katz-Lacabe and his two daughters stepping out of his car in their driveway. The photograph frightened him about the magnitude of police surveillance and data collection, he said.

The interest in this new technology arrives at a time when the public is learning more about massive surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, reportedly tracking phone calls and emails without warrants. The concern has gone global — foreign governments are upset with the U.S. after Wiki-Leaks, and more recently, NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed just how widespread the surveillance is.

These revelations should prompt the Menlo Park council to require what will safeguard the privacy of individuals driving through the city's streets going about their daily lives. Those saying there's no need to worry if you aren't doing something "wrong"fail to learn from history that the definition of "wrong" changes with those in power.

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