Portola Valley: 24-hour surveillance begins with license-plate readers


Two of the three avenues into and out of Portola Valley are now under round-the-clock surveillance by cameras that capture images of the license plates of every passing vehicle.

The cameras are up and running at the town's border with Woodside on Portola Road and on Arastradero Road near the intersection with Alpine Road, according to a Jan. 31 emailed announcement from Town Manager Jeremy Dennis.

Portola Valley's third entrance, on Alpine Road at the border with the unincorporated community of Ladera, remains unmonitored. San Mateo County has plans to install a license-plate-reading camera farther east on Alpine that will track all traffic into and out of Ladera, which would also capture all traffic into and out of Portola Valley. That camera is likely to be operational in late spring, Mr. Dennis said.

Use of camera data

Vigilant Solutions, the Livermore-based company that provided Portola Valley's cameras and stores its data, has been in the news recently in connection with a contract to allow the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency access to Vigilant's data. (Vigilant declined to confirm whether it has a contract with ICE, according to news reports.)

The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, grants law enforcement agencies access to license-plate-image databases, but only for investigations of criminal cases, according to Mike Sena, the director of NCRIC and a captain in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

The camera data belongs to the towns and cities that authorize its collection, Mr. Sena said. "We make sure that we respect how people would like to share their data and who has access to it," he said.

In his statement, Mr. Dennis noted that "the Town controls access to all of its data and has not authorized Vigilant to make the data available to ICE."

Portola Valley's data will be stored for one year, after which it will be "permanently destroyed," according to an ordinance approved by the Town Council in April 2017.

The council at the time acknowledged an exception to the 12-month rule, allowing NCRIC to retain images if the vehicle is of interest to law enforcement authorities.

Once a year, the town manager will report to the council on how many times the data has been accessed, how many times the cameras captured a license plate of interest to law enforcement, the number of subsequent inquiries by law enforcement, the reasons for those inquiries, and whether and why NCRIC retained any data beyond the 12-month expiration date.

Legitimate reasons to view Portola Valley's license plate data include assisting in an investigation of a crime, locating stolen vehicles, locating missing persons and wanted persons, searching the area around the scene of a crime, and "any other purpose deemed appropriate by a majority of the Town Council upon the request of law enforcement," the ordinance says.

The data cannot be used to enforce traffic violations; to harass, intimidate or discriminate against any individual or group; or to invade someone's privacy "where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists," the ordinance says.

Asked of instances of unauthorized access to license plate data, Mr. Sena said there have been none. "I'd like to think it's because we spend a lot of money on infrastructure," he said when asked about the agency's perfect record. "There is a huge effort on everyone's part. ... If people can't trust where the information is (being held), we wouldn't be holding it."


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14 people like this
Posted by margomca
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 6, 2018 at 1:08 pm

margomca is a registered user.

OOOOHHHHH! This sounds like Big Brother. I fear the future, particularly with Homeland Security involved. Yes, the article says ICE will not be given access to the information, but who is to say that won't change. My guess is that at least some of the workers who clean your house, do your yard work and fill your handyman needs may be of interest to ICE, not because they have been miscreants, but only are undocumented. If you have talked to those seeking a road to citizenship, so they can shed the dreaded "undocumented" status, you will know just how hard that is. People have waited for over 10 years. My concerns are many, but close to home, I wonder how the jobs now performed by undocumented folks will be filled. Our unemployment rates are low. Who will do those jobs? You? My own experience with immigrants is they are hard workers, honest, pay taxes and just want to be part of what the rest of us have. We are all of immigrant stock somewhere down the line! Don't be taken in by the negative news. These are not bad people!!! If there are a few bad apples, they should be dealt with as individuals, not given a blanket sentence of "go back".

12 people like this
Posted by Enuff
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 6, 2018 at 1:50 pm

This is not about illegal aliens. This is about American citizens being place under surveillance by their own government--which is supposed to be the government of We the People.
By now our Smartphones are spying on us, our computers are spying on us, Alexa is spying on us. And now we're being spied on as we drive.

Big Brother for sure! And that's why we need to protest.
There is no benign reason for this kind of hyper-vigilant tracking of our mobility. It violates our Constitutional protections. Ordinary Americans are being watched as if we were criminals. This is worse than the Stasi in East Germany.
Hey Portola Valley--wake up!

19 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 6, 2018 at 1:55 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When you drive a car on a public road you are required to display a license plate - anyone can observe/photograph that license plate. What is the problem?

9 people like this
Posted by Steve_J
a resident of another community
on Feb 6, 2018 at 2:49 pm

Steve_J is a registered user.

One has no right to privacy in public areas/places. Roadways are not private areas.

11 people like this
Posted by Dave Ross
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Feb 6, 2018 at 3:39 pm

Portola Valley's community and Town Council engaged in vigorous debate before deciding to get ALPRs (automated license plate readers). A majority (not a consensus) conclusion was that the potential public safety benefits outweighed privacy concerns, especially with tight control of how the data is used. Folks presented just about every point of view imaginable - from conspiracy "Big Brother" fantasies to "waste of money and resources" to "it will make us safer" positions. All were considered by the Council before going ahead with the project.

My own opinion was (and still is) that most people have unfounded expectations about the usefulness of data collected by ALPRs. The Town went through a rash of burglaries and a couple of violent robberies recently, and for many in Town the ALPRs seem to be part of the answer - either as a deterrent to perps coming into Town, or as a tool to identify crime suspects after the fact. I don't see how either of these expectations can be realistic (with something like 10,000 - 20,000 cars traveling past an ALPR, how do you ID a suspect vehicle for a daytime house break-in? How easy is it, if you're planning on breaking into some houses, to start with an out-of-town license plate switch?). ALPRs are outstanding for spotting stolen vehicles (or at least their plates) and other vehicles of interest and alerting LEOs right away.

From my analysis, ALPRs aren't likely to do what people hope they will do, and are therefore a waste of money. But I support our democratic process - the Council heard me and many others, decided what to do - and I can live with that To "Enuff" from Menlo Park - you won't find a much more "woke up" community that PV. Do some study on that and you will see.

6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Feb 6, 2018 at 4:00 pm

Question: would it be legal to automatically photograph the license plate of every car visiting a medical clinic or marriage counselor or marijuana store or gun store etc, then anonymously post these online? According to the above posts, people driving to these locations via public streets have no expectation of privacy.

6 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 6, 2018 at 4:59 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"Question: would it be legal to automatically photograph the license plate of every car visiting a medical clinic or marriage counselor or marijuana store or gun store etc, then anonymously post these online? According to the above posts, people driving to these locations via public streets have no expectation of privacy."

That's right they don't. No one has any expectation of privacy when they are in public. If they don't want to be seen in public then the option is to not go there. That's the law.

8 people like this
Posted by voter
a resident of another community
on Feb 6, 2018 at 7:50 pm

If a camera taking a picture of my license plate makes the neighborhood safer whats the issue? It should have been done a long time ago.

3 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Feb 6, 2018 at 9:10 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Dave Ross asked "with something like 10,000 - 20,000 cars traveling past an ALPR, how do you ID a suspect vehicle for a daytime house break-in?"

First, you usually have a pretty small time window. If a break-in occurs at 10:00am, you can check the ALPR at approximately that time and you only have to check the ALPR camera that monitors cars feeding into that street. ALPR software can also easily cull out "known" cars of people who live in Portola Valley.

It's actually not very difficult at all. It can take just a few minutes.

7 people like this
Posted by Thieves
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Feb 7, 2018 at 8:36 am

The LPRs are great, but the smart thieves replace their license plates with paper dealer plates.

There also seems to be a lot of people who are deliberately removing the reflective coating from their plates, making it difficult for LPR systems to photograph.

5 people like this
Posted by driver / resident
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Feb 7, 2018 at 8:38 am

Nice job alerting the crooks what exit is not yet monitored

stellar reporting there

7 people like this
Posted by Dave Ross
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Feb 8, 2018 at 2:27 pm

In response to "pogo" (it feels silly conversing with an imaginary person - is everyone afraid to be identified?):

Many, of not most of the PV daytime break-ins last year happened during a fairly large time window. If someone happens to have video surveillance at their entry, your "occurs at 10:00am" idea is plausible, but most victims don't know the exact time of the break-in. It's also not so simple to exclude resident's license tags instantly. Even if the system could do so, more than half the trips in and out of town are by visitors: deliveries, services (landscape maintenance, Smilin' Dogs, pet groomers, to name a few), construction workers ... and on and on.

As far as only checking the ALPR for the local street - maybe you missed the part of the article about where these are located. At their current (and planned) locations, this idea is a non-starter.

Even if the list of potential bad actors is narrowed down to a few hundred cars, imagine the resources required to check them all out. For a theft of items, most likely insured, that are worth a few thousand dollars at most. Those resources are typically busy solving violent crimes elsewhere in the County. I know this, because several years ago we were burglarized. The investigation went nowhere, even though we had a good idea who committed it, and plenty of forensic evidence was left behind. Why? Working to solve that crime, with its associated costs to the police and judicial system was not a high enough priority. We were angry about it at the time, but that's the reality. Every now and then this type of crime is solved by happenstance, and that's wonderful. If ALPR data can show that a suspect's vehicle was in town at the time of the crime, that's a nice piece of evidence to have. But a very far cry from ALPRs utility as a crime fighting tool.

The good news, though, is that my personal opinion doesn't affect the possible success of the new ALPRs - we have them now, and if they work like you think I will buy you a beer a Zot's (if you're willing to reveal your secret identity).

Like this comment
Posted by Privacy
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Feb 10, 2018 at 2:18 pm

How many burglaries in the last 6 months?

Ten bucks says a year down the road they malfunction and no one notices....

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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