San Jose is tightening rules around how police officers can use license plate data, hoping to build more trust with residents as the city prepares to expand its use of automated cameras.
The updated rules are a key part of the city’s digital privacy program to help ensure its mass surveillance and information gathering systems don’t violate individual rights.
The San Jose City Council unanimously approved a policy Tuesday that formally bans the police department from selling any license plate data, using that information for investigating a person’s immigration status or for monitoring legally protected activities like protests or rallies.
Even with these new rules, some privacy advocates and community groups are still opposed to the technology.
Victor Sin, chair of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of ACLU of Northern California, expressed doubt that the readers are improving public safety. He made the comments in a letter to the council from himself and leaders of four other community organizations.
“Despite claims that (automated license plate reader) systems can reduce crime, researchers have expressed concerns about the rapid acquisition of this technology by law enforcement without evidence of its efficacy,” the letter reads.
Groups including the Asian Law Alliance and San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP also said the city should reduce the amount of time it keeps license plate data on file down from one year.
While the city has been using license plate readers since 2006, it didn’t develop its first official use policy for the technology and its data until 2017, city reports said.
License plate readers in the city have been mounted exclusively on police patrol cars until recently. In September 2021, the city council approved a pilot program for the intersection of Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue following three unsolved, fatal hit and runs that occurred there.
Four stationary cameras from Atlanta-based firm Flock Safety are mounted at the intersection, and captured nearly 300,000 plate scans in just the last month, according to city data. The council also approved spending $250,000 on more cameras in response to high-profile Bay Area retail robberies in November.
Mayor Sam Liccardo said he’s already convinced the readers are useful, but added the council should try to find a way to measure their effect.
“It’s probably not a bad idea for us to decide what are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve, and if there is some reasonable metric that captures that outcome in a meaningful way,” Liccardo said. “Was this used to actually help us arrest anybody, or solve a crime or prevent an accident?”
Overall, San Jose is planning to eventually add about 150 license plate readers around the city, but officials didn’t specify how soon that would happen.
Albert Gehami, San Jose’s digital privacy officer, told councilmembers the city has been collecting feedback on concerns about surveillance technology—including how it could be misused to target vulnerable communities—and has tried to address those concerns in the updated policy.
Gehami said there is an auditable trail for all officers who use the data from license plate readers, which requires them to input a purpose for the data along with their badge number, among other information.
“So that afterwards, we can audit and make sure that log shows exactly how the technology is being used,” Gehami said.
While Liccardo said the potential privacy risk from license plate readers isn’t as great compared to the potential risks from other emerging technologies the city is testing, such as gunshot detection systems, he acknowledged concerns of others.
“I certainly don’t blame anyone in the community for being concerned and flinching whenever there’s discussion about the government collecting information about us, it’s a healthy reflex,” Liccardo said. “We’re Americans, that’s what we do.”
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