Amid burglary concerns, Woodside will install license plate readers in town | July 29, 2022 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - July 29, 2022

Amid burglary concerns, Woodside will install license plate readers in town

by Angela Swartz

Twenty automated license plate readers will be installed around Woodside despite concerns from some residents that the amount of crime does not warrant the privacy they'll lose by installing the readers.

The Town Council voted 5-0, with Sean Scott absent, to sign an agreement with Flock Safety for $61,100. Woodside joins neighboring towns, like Atherton (which uses Flock), Menlo Park, Redwood City and Portola Valley, that have added the readers in recent years. Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) are mounted on police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges.

"I reluctantly support (this) with the caveat that we continue to negotiate an agreement with Flock and finalize our privacy policy," said Council member Jenn Wall. "It's really important the council and staff take the privacy concerns seriously."

Based on public feedback, council members said there was an even split among residents who wanted the ALPRs and those who did not.

One resident, Andrew Howard, pointed town officials to a March 2022 American Civil Liberties Union report that calls out Flock for building a mass surveillance system. The report notes "a proliferation of cameras and widespread sharing allow for the creation of intrusive records of our comings and goings, create chilling effects, and open the door to abusive tracking. And the scale of what Flock is doing goes far beyond what was contemplated when ALPRs first arrived on the scene."

Burglaries trigger request for cameras

Initially the town considered a pilot project with the readers in the Woodside Hills neighborhood, east of Interstate Highway 280, where there have been recent attempted home burglaries and burglaries. But they heard from residents throughout town that they'd like cameras installed as well.

In Woodside Hills, there was a burglary on the 600 block of Woodside Drive on June 18 and a burglary on the 200 Block of Ridgeway Road on June 3, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office police blotter. One neighbor told the council last month that installing the readers would help give residents peace of mind.

"We don't know how many crimes are deterred because of license plate readers," said Woodside Hills resident Sue Sweeney. "That's something that cannot be measured. But even if you deter a couple a year, it will make a huge difference. But for someone like (my neighbor), whose house they tried to break into, it's terrifying."

The readers have helped the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office solve a series of burglaries in Ladera, Lt. Mark Myers told the council. The readers helped officers discover the burglars were renting cars from a company in Vallejo.

"What they would do is every five or six days, they would go around the Bay Area committing burglaries and then go back to the rental car place and change the car out," he explained to the council at a June meeting. "So we were actually able, by using ALPR identify that car, and then go and talk to the rental agency, and then we were able to actually find out when they were re-upping or getting the new car. And then we were able to eventually locate and chase them."

Other privacy concerns, actual effectiveness

Brian Hofer, executive director of Secure Justice, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates against state abuse of power and for reduction in government and corporate overreach, told the council in June that he fears Woodside has no way to gauge the effectiveness of the readers.

"If you come back next year and say, 'Oh, look, you know, we had 100 hits on these license plate readers,' it's meaningless," he said. "You don't have a baseline of data today to compare. Next year, the reporting provision, just capturing the hits and queries, isn't going to tell you the results. Did it actually lead to a stolen recovered vehicle or a witness or an Amber Alert? Did you actually locate suspects for violent crimes? I would encourage you to look at a more robust annual reporting mechanism if you move forward."

He said he worked with the city of Alameda on creating a detailed annual ALPR policy.

Hofer also encouraged the council to go with the 30-day retention limit on the collected data, which the town ultimately did. Myers recommended a longer retention period, of about three months, because if people go on vacation for an extended period of time by the time they report it, the footage could be close to being deleted. Or, if there are a series of burglaries police are investigating, and police get a lead on a suspect, it's difficult for them to link cases if the footage is gone.

"The privacy invasiveness comes from the accumulation of data," Hofer said. "An easy way to mitigate that concern is to have a shorter retention period so that you don't have multiple data points. That's how you track people in playing the patterns and association. ... So although I do not endorse surveillance tech vendors I have been impressed with Flock. During these few years where they've been expanding into this market, my primary concern is that you have no way to gauge effectiveness."

More on the plans

The council directed staff to create quarterly updates on the Flock cameras in town.

The town received six responses to the request for proposals.

The town can continue the agreement at $52,500 annually if it chooses.

Email Staff Writer Angela Swartz at [email protected]

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