BART surveillance initiatives will be given greater public scrutiny after an ordinance requiring board approval and public review was unanimously approved at the BART Board of Directors meeting Thursday.
The ordinance was hailed by civil liberties advocates, who previously criticized BART for potentially endangering immigrant communities and the riding public by proposing surveillance systems without a policy in place to safeguard privacy and prevent information sharing with federal agencies.
In a turnaround from concerns expressed previously, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups hailed the BART board vote Thursday.
“Today’s decision will help BART staff and law enforcement officials begin to earn back the community’s trust by asking us for feedback about how they navigate the city,” said Sameena Usman, government relations coordinator of CAIR SF, in a statement. “Under an administration committed to targeting sanctuary cities like San Francisco, it will protect our civil liberties at the local level, which is crucial to the safety of our most marginalized communities.”
The ordinance will require BART to give public notice and seek Board of Directors approval before seeking funding for surveillance equipment or crafting other technology proposals involving the use of personally identifiable information. BART must release surveillance “impact reports” detailing what private information would be collected and shared with other agencies before passage for public review. BART must also adapt a use policy for surveillance tech that the agency must adhere to upon board passage, and develop data protection proposals and publish an annual report on its surveillance activities.
But it isn’t just about surveillance, said BART Board member Nick Josefowitz. The ordinance also concerns mobile ticketing apps or any other technology that collects personally identifiable information, he said. How long BART is collecting that information, why and how, all will go before a public process.
There is an exemption for the agency to test technology in one district location for 60 days without a public process, but the agency would not be able to keep personally identifiable information from that test, Josefowitz said. Screening technology ahead of time also serves a practical purpose, he said.
“We don’t want to go through some mega-public process to purchase a camera that ends up not working,” Josefowitz.
The surveillance technology policy is part of a broader discussion on BART’s “safety and security action plan,” which also included temporary emergency BART police staffing, expansion and conversion of surveillance cameras station wide, proof of payment officers and a proposed fare gate replacement program to make them taller and therefore more difficult to hop over.
Though the surveillance ordinance was widely hailed by privacy organizations and groups representing marginalized communities, it comes as BART is under criticism for passing license plate data it recorded to a database accessible by the United States Department of Homeland Security, as reported by the East Bay Times on Wednesday.
BART collected riders license plate information from the MacArthur Station parking garage and sent that data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. Agency staff told the East Bay Times the incident, which violated the BART board’s “Safe Transit” policy mirroring Sanctuary City policies to prohibit district employees and police from helping enforce federal immigration laws, was an “accident.”
BART spokespeople denied NCRIC shared info with Immigrations and Custom Enforcement in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. However, the investigative arm of Homeland Security, the Homeland Security Investigations division, does have access to the NCRIC database, the East Bay Times confirmed.
Riders have also expressed concern that surveillance would expand BART Police power at a time when the department’s relationship with the black community is troubled. Color of Change, which represents black communities, said in a statement that “public oversight like this is necessary to stop law enforcement from using inadequately regulated surveillance technologies that disproportionately target Black people.”
Concerns over BART police conduct reignited after BART Police shot and killed Shaleem Tindle on Jan. 3 this year. Tindle, 28, was an Oakland resident with family in San Francisco, including local boxer Karim Mayfield. At the BART board meeting Thursday, Tindle’s mother, Yolanda Banks, told the board she had lost faith in their efforts to hold police accountable for the death of her son.
“I know many people are here today for [surveillance policies] for BART, but first you have to recognize who’s doing the crime and where the crime is coming from,” she said. Banks decried a lack of accountability for the officer who shot Tindle, even as the BART board sought to expand their ability to surveil the riding public.
“It’s easy to go back to business after a murder,” she said.