Portola Valley residents are soon to confront a tradeoff: continuing privacy in their driving habits or giving up some measure of that privacy in the interest of combating crime.
The Town Council plans to hold public forums early in 2015 to discuss costs and benefits and seek opinions on round-the-clock police surveillance of the license plates of all vehicles passing through town.
The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office is seeking permission from the council to set up two or three permanent license-plate-reading cameras in strategic roadside locations to improve the odds of identifying the vehicles of thieves, burglars and other miscreants.
The cameras would capture the comings and goings of everybody, transmitting the data to a regional police intelligence center, where it could be stored for up to a year in a database used for criminal investigations.
On Oct. 22, the council heard a presentation from the director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) on the uses of license plate data and the procedures established to protect it from unauthorized access.
Access to the data would be restricted to law enforcement personnel who agree to abide by NCRIC privacy policies set by the state attorney general and the federal Department of Justice, NCRIC Director Mike Sena told the council. Users, including federal agents, must have a specific purpose for examining the data, he added.
Is it safe?
Skepticism over the safety of the camera data came from councilmen Craig Hughes and John Richards. The possibility exists that someone could sue for and obtain the data, exposing the driving patterns of residents, Mr. Hughes said.
Referring to a recent lawsuit in Southern California by the American Civil Liberties Union over access to license plate photos taken from patrol cars, Mr. Hughes noted that the ruling specifically classified data from mobile cameras as protected from disclosure in that it is evidence gathered in a police investigation.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department argued that the term "investigation" covers an officer reacting to a license plate camera inside a patrol car that detects a suspect plate. Such data qualifies for nondisclosure, the department said. The judge concluded that the public interest weighed against disclosure.
But what about fixed, always-on cameras that gather data on all passing vehicles, including vehicles not under suspicion? Would that situation constitute an "investigation"? If not, is that data a public record? The question has not been addressed in court, Mr. Hughes said.
Asked to comment, Town Attorney Leigh Prince said that an argument could be made that such data is a public record.
Mr. Richards called the cameras "shiny new tools" that people want to use. "It's one of those, 'If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail' kind of thing," he said.
He pointed to the "phenomenal explosion" of data from many sources, and its potential as a chink in the armor of civil liberties. "It may not be a major chink, but it's a chink, and I'm certainly worried about it," he said.
The cameras are "very valuable tools," Lt. Tim Reid of the Sheriff's Office said when asked to comment. Without cameras, unless deputies are on the scene, "we've got nothing," he said.
A compromise, Mr. Hughes said, might lie in how long NCRIC keeps data about vehicles of no interest to police. If data about suspect vehicles -- a tiny fraction of the total -- could be stored and the rest deleted after, say, two weeks, "it might not be a bad idea," Mr. Hughes said.
A year of storage gives reluctant victims and witnesses time to open up to investigators, Mr. Sena said. And a plate may be tied to other crimes, including future crimes. "We're really trying to push standardization," he said.
Councilman Jeff Aalfs acknowledged "a little" concern about privacy, but wondered if the council was concerned about the right issue. The town may have an implicit obligation to communities already using the cameras, to contribute to what he called a network effect.
If a suspect plate is detected in Redwood City and passes unnoticed through Portola Valley, is Portola Valley pulling its communal weight? "For the system to have a benefit, we ought to be on the same playing field as everybody else," Mr. Aalfs said.
The Sheriff's Office has contacted Woodside Town Hall on the question of license plate readers, Mayor Dave Burow told the Almanac. "Before they (do) anything, we should have them come and present to the council," he said.
Mayor Ann Wengert said that civil liberties should be a top priority, but that crime is an important issue in Portola Valley. "We all know that there's an economic disparity that's increasing," she said.
Asked in an interview to elaborate, Ms. Wengert said that a wealthy community can create incentives for would-be criminals. "Any time you have that kind of bifurcation in the economic situation of your residents in the whole place, that can certainly result in a targeted location," she said.
A few residents commented at the Oct. 22 meeting. Slawek Wojtowicz, who said he lived in Poland during the Cold War, compared the proposed surveillance to life under Communism and the dystopian society portrayed in the novel "1984" by George Orwell. "Do we want more of that?" he asked. "I don't."
In England, known for the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, "there's no place to hide," Mr. Wojtowicz said. "Do we really want to live in that kind of a society?"
Virginia Bacon asked Mr. Sena whether the public would know the locations of the cameras.
"Normally, we don't advertise where the cameras are," he replied.