BART to craft policy on new license-plate tracking cameras in parking lots

BART is considering employing technology that would track the license plates of vehicles as they drive in and out of station parking lots and garages.

The new tech would aid in catching criminals and enforcing parking laws, BART police said.

But before BART casts a watchful eye on nearby drivers, it will craft a surveillance policy to ensure its riders’ data is protected.

The BART Board of Directors committed Thursday to taking the first steps toward crafting that policy for the vehicle license plate reader technology, and by its next meeting have a plan to create a committee to consider formation of surveillance policies and reach out to policy leaders like the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We need to broaden the people who are looking at this,” said Joel Keller, a BART director who represents Contra Costa County. “I don’t want to delay, but don’t want to rush.”

Directors from San Francisco, like Nick Josefowitz, saw potential in the technology to aid BART with research about its riders.

After a surveillance policy is crafted, he said, “I think we should really think deeply how we can use this [data] in an anonymized form to provide better services. This is rich data.”

BART police obtained grant funding in 2013 to purchase automated license plate reader technology, according to BART staff documents.

Only one camera that reads license plates has been installed as of late last year, at the MacArthur BART station parking garage in Oakland, but has not been turned on and is not collecting data, said BART spokesperson Alicia Trost.

Trost said there are no immediate plans for any other installations, but depending on how the MacArthur parking garage pilot project goes, as well as identification of funding, “We may install the technology at other locations in the future,” which may aid in parking enforcement.

While for now the data collection may only affect the 450 or so daily parkers at the MacArthur BART station, the data collection policy may one day impact all 34 stations that have parking.

Those lots encompass more than 45,000 spaces, many used by those who commute to San Francisco every day.

But before lofty goals such as enforcement or research are explored using license plate data, privacy concerns must be addressed, public commenters said at Thursday’s meeting.

“Why do we need this at all?” asked JP Massar of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, adding that after 44 years of operation, “Does BART need to know the license plate of every car? The answer is, you don’t.”

Massar alleged that other police agencies who have employed the technology have run into trouble by registering false ID’s of license plates, using the information to deport immigrants, and conduct what he called unconstitutional investigations.

“The purpose of BART is to provide service, not spying,” he said.

BART police participates in the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center Data Sharing Partnership, according to BART, which means the agency’s police can find license plate data collected by 44 or so local law enforcement agencies, including San Francisco and Oakland police departments, to track vehicles in BART parking lots.

Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, said the BART Police Department “deals with a lot of thefts from things in vehicles.”

But, Sena added, without license plate tracking technology “they’ve got nowhere to really go to figure out what cars were nearby or on scene when the crime occurred.”

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