Portola Valley: Little opposition to recording license plate data


Eight residents and a few town officials gathered on March 10 at the Historic Schoolhouse in Portola Valley to discuss an idea advanced by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office to set up license-plate-reading cameras in town.

It was the second of two forums to gauge community sentiment on whether to mount three cameras at inconspicuous locations along Alpine, Portola and Arastradero roads. The cameras would photograph all vehicle traffic, day and night.

The cameras can help authorities identify burglars and thieves, deputies said.

In the two forums, opinion tilted toward installing the cameras.

The Town Council is likely to discuss the matter in April, Town Manager Nick Pegueros said. If the council were to approve their use, it's not clear when cameras might go up.

The cameras send alerts to authorities within seconds of capturing plates of interest. When combined with images from neighboring communities, the cameras can track a suspect.

The photos can also show the make, model and color of a vehicle. When working cases, police sometimes work from partial plate numbers. A searchable database of images can find plates that match those fragments, said Capt. Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center in San Francisco.

Fusion centers

The intelligence center, also known as a fusion center, has a staff of over 70 employees from local, state and federal agencies that deal with emergency situations.

Bay Area participants include six county sheriffs' offices, the California Highway Patrol, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Fusion centers share information related to terrorism, homeland security and law enforcement, Mr. Sena said in an email. "They provide invaluable expertise and situational awareness to inform decision making at all levels of government ... and assist law enforcement and homeland security partners in preventing and investigating crime and terrorism."

Access to fusion center databases is restricted to law enforcement officers; the center also provides training on civil liberties, civil rights and privacy, and on signs and precursors associated with criminal behavior and acts of terrorism, Mr. Sena said.

The cameras are potentially controversial. There are questions over how long to store the images and whether courts will deem them a public record, creating the possibility of data being posted online and revealing residents' travel patterns.

"We believe that (image storage) ought to be measured in days and maybe weeks and not in years or months," said Jerry Schwarz of the Mid-Peninsula chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Burglars operate regionally and solving cases takes time, Mr. Sena said. "(We need) that 12-month time frame to do that investigation," he said.

The hit rate -- license plates of interest to law enforcement -- is one or two per thousand images, Mr. Sena said. The database automatically deletes images of no interest after one year, he said.

High-speed cameras

The cameras are special-purpose instruments. In a squad car, a camera can capture the plates of a vehicle moving at high speed in the opposite direction. The cameras do not create readable pictures of vehicle occupants, Mr. Sena said.

The cameras sometimes mistake a zero for the letter O, or a street sign for a license plate. For this reason, the plate number in an image must be validated by a human being before searching for the registered owner via the Department of Motor Vehicles, Mr. Sena said.

Each stored image includes a record of who has seen it, information that would be provided to the Sheriff's Office, he said.

'I hate burglars'

"I hate burglars," Lt. Tim Reid of the Sheriff's Office told residents at the March 10 forum. "There's nothing that I enjoy more than catching burglars."

He has already used license-plate-reading cameras in Portola Valley. Responding to a spate of home burglaries in the spring of 2014, deputies borrowed cameras from the fusion center for two weeks and placed them in roadside speed-monitoring trailers.

For the first day and half, the town, which owns the roadside right-of-way, was unaware of their presence.

"I was trying to come up with ways to catch these burglars and had the cameras placed," Lt. Reid said at the time, adding that he realized later that he needed to inform town officials. The Town Council discussed the matter and decided to gauge community opinion, in part through the two forums.

David W. Johnson of Ladera gave the forum an account of a recent break-in. He found his home ransacked and at least $20,000 in valuables stolen, including heirlooms in a safe.

A neighbor's low-resolution camera captured images of two men entering his property, he said. The men might be in jail now had there been license-plate cameras at the entrance and exit points to the neighborhood.

Responding to a comment from Mr. Schwarz of the ACLU about hackers accessing the fusion center's database, Mr. Johnson added his perspective.

"Our privacy is so much more vulnerable through every other device we use than this (license-plate-reading camera)," he said. "It's everything else we should be worried about getting hacked. Our banks, our phones, our computers. ... Our risks lie elsewhere."

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Like this comment
Posted by David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Mar 17, 2015 at 12:55 pm

I went to the meeting, and despite strong privacy leanings, came away with cautious support for this. I have a decent fear that "government" will find ways to overuse and misuse this data, and I don't trust their promises of security and audits. However, if my house were robbed or my children were endangered, I'd want the Sheriff to catch the bad guys as quickly as possible.

The basic functionality of this system (as we were assured) is to do a live lookup of a scanned license plate against a database of known plates of interest; if there's a "hit", local law enforcement is immediately notified that Plate XXX was just seen in Town Y. There doesn't (yet) seem to be any massive analysis or data mining of the data.

I hope they do it... and I hope we don't in 10 years regret that this opened a big privacy hole.

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