Almanac

News - October 2, 2013

Menlo Park City Council: Privacy rules before surveillance expansion

by Sandy Brundage

After several hours of sometimes spirited discussion, the Menlo Park City Council voted 5-0 on Sept. 24 to approve the purchase of three automated license plate readers and four surveillance cameras, but delayed deployment of the technology.

The license plate readers will be mounted on three patrol cars, one per beat. The readers capture two images of every vehicle visible with a 360-degree radius. The images, one of the license plate and one of the vehicle itself, would be automatically compared with a "hot sheet" listing alerts for vehicles associated with criminal activity. If no match is found, the images, along with the geographic coordinates of where the images were taken, are sent to a regional database for storage for up to 12 months.

The council opted to draft a privacy ordinance for the city as well as a memorandum of understanding with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), the agency that will store the license plate data, to govern data retention and sharing. The regional agency is one of more than 70 centers nationwide affiliated with the National Fusion Center, which is under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security.

Council members Kirsten Keith and Ray Mueller volunteered to serve on a subcommittee that will create the MOU and privacy ordinance with the help of the city attorney. Both expressed a desire to consider keeping license plate data for six months rather than a year, the maximum length of storage time NCRIC provides. The ordinance may also include a clause making it illegal for any private vendors, such as repossession companies, to collect license plate data within Menlo Park using their own readers.

NCRIC representatives were on hand to answer questions during the council meeting. They stressed that the data is for use by law enforcement agencies, although data may also be provided to private sector companies categorized as "critical infrastructure" when evidence suggests those companies are potential targets of terrorist or criminal activity.

Mike Sena, director of NCRIC, said that "99 percent of the time" no one else is going to see the data apart from the local agency that collected it.

Councilman Rich Cline suggested that the Menlo Park police department be notified when another law enforcement agency accesses the city's license plate data and that the city be able to audit such requests. Ms. Keith wanted to include a clause in the MOU that requires the police department to approve any other agency's request.

The issue of surveillance cameras posed less of a dilemma, although where the cameras would be mounted remains to be determined. The council and police department shared stories of residents in Belle Haven as well as Sharon Heights requesting coverage in light of recent crimes.

The equipment "is not a silver bullet. It is not going to stop all crime everywhere," Police Chief Bob Jonsen told the council, but it will help with investigation. Multiple recent shootings within Belle Haven appear to have been carried out by the same people. "We have good leads on almost every single one of those shootings, and not one of those suspects we believe (is) from that neighborhood," he said, which illustrates why video footage of the shooters in action would aid investigators.

The cameras and license plate readers will be paid for with $107,682 from Menlo Park's general fund and $20,000 from a state law enforcement grant. Ongoing costs for this equipment are expected to be $6,500 annually.

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