Tonight: Community forum on license-plate-reading cameras in Portola Valley


The town of Portola Valley, on Tuesday, March 10, is hosting the second of two community forums on the question of whether license-plate-reading surveillance cameras should be permanently mounted at key locations in town.

The forum takes place at 7 p.m. in the Historic Schoolhouse at 765 Portola Road.

About 10 residents showed up for the first forum on Feb. 10. Also attending were Mayor Jeff Aalfs and Councilman Craig Hughes from the town, and Lt. Tim Reid and Capt. Mike Sena from the Sheriff's Office.

Mr. Sena is the director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center in San Francisco. Also known as fusion centers, the regional intelligence centers have a primary mission of protecting critical infrastructure, but the Northern California center is also the location of the database containing the license plate images.

The cameras would be located so as to photograph traffic at the three arteries into and out of town -- on Alpine, Portola and Arastradero roads.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office would operate the cameras, with the images of license plates stored at a regional office of the Department of Homeland Security.

Why a community forum?

The Portola Valley Town Council is seeking community feedback before deciding on whether to allow the cameras to be mounted in town, and what the policies governing their use should say.

The town could set a policy, for example, that sets when the regional intelligence center should destroy images captured in Portola Valley. The center's standard is destruction after one year unless the image is from a vehicle of interest to law enforcement authorities.

Councilman Hughes has raised questions yet to be answered by intelligence center officials as to whether the images taken by the cameras could be deemed a public record. If they are, anyone can make a request for the images under the state's Public Records Act and learn the comings and goings of individual vehicles passing through Portola Valley.

The database is open to law enforcement officers only, Mr. Sena has said. People from member organizations contact the intelligence center with questions, including questions about actual cases in real time.

The intelligence center can respond immediately, Mr. Sena said, from cold cases to missing persons to violent crime, and can include tracking serial killers. Authorities can now pinpoint the location of a suspect in another state, whereas in the past such a search involved hundreds of phone calls as well as record searches and fax exchanges. "What would take months now takes hours," he said. "It's just a different world for law enforcement these days."

The intelligence center controls access using guidelines set by the state and federal governments, Mr. Sena said. The center also provides training on privacy rights and data security, he said. People wanting access to the data must sign nondisclosure agreements, and records of their access are available for town officials to review, according to policies described on the website.

■ The website of the regional intelligence center has links to several publications on civil liberties protections.

■ The American Civil Liberties Union has a document online explaining its view on license-plate reading cameras.

■ Are the license-plate images a public record? The Electronic Frontier Foundation weighs in.

■ The California Highway Patrol has published a summary of stolen-vehicle trends in 2013, including trends in San Mateo County.

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