BART board approves automated license plate surveillance in parking lots

Program was halted after concerns raised that data was going to ICE

BART will once again equip cameras in its parking lots with license plate reading technology despite privacy concerns, after a vote by the BART Board of Directors at their regular meeting Thursday.

Exactly where the four cameras will be placed for the pilot program approved by the board has yet to be revealed. The readers record license plate information of vehicles inside BART parking lots when they enter and leave.

The surveillance technology automatically converts photographs of license plates into text readable by machines, which then link to known crime databases like Be On The Look Out Alerts, AMBER and SILVER alerts to match the license plate with vehicles of interest to law enforcement agencies.

BART hopes the license plate reader technology will reduce theft at BART parking lots, which cost BART riders some $7 million in property damage and theft annually, according to the agency. BART parking lots saw 1,178 auto burglaries in 2017, and 930 in 2018, as well as 420 auto thefts in 2017 and 354 auto thefts in 2018.

But the program was approved over concerns from technology privacy advocates, who argued the policy would be another brick in the road towards transforming the Bay Area into a surveillance state.

Reporting by the San Jose Mercury News/East Bay Times last year revealed BART quietly collected its riders license plate information for a period of eight months in 2017, and sent it to a database accessible to U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, potentially exposing undocumented immigrants’ information to an agency that community often voices fear of.

“Do you, do we, does everyone, want to live in that kind of world?” said J.P. Massar, an activist, at the BART meeting.

At the BART board’s regular meeting, Mimi Bolaffi, manager of security programs at BART, tried to soothe some of those worries.

BART would institute a 30-day retention policy, down from one-year retention in a previous proposal, and limit access to the license plate data among BART employees. The license plate data would be stored with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which does not share information with ICE or other immigration agencies, Bolaffi said.

BART board director Rebecca Saltzman, who represents Alameda and Contra Costa counties, said community input on privacy concerns helped strengthen the proposal before the board Thursday.

“I think we’ve gone a long way,” she said.

Saltzman made a motion to bring the surveillance policy back to the BART board when more cameras are purchased and the program expanded.

Addressing surveillance concerns by activists, BART board director Debora Allen, who represents Contra Costa county, noted that people’s faces are already being recorded in BART parking lots and aboard its trains.

The license plate readers are necessary because “I want to live in a world where people get on a train safely, without drama in their lives,” she said. “And where they take a train home and their car is not broken into.”

Despite assurances from BART staff, however, not all board members felt secure in NICRIC’s ability to secure data from immigration authorities.

BART board director Janice Li, who represents San Francisco’s West Side, noted that she’s the “only immigrant” on the BART board, and has been a U.S. citizen for twenty years.

“I know there are issues with NICRIC that go well beyond this policy,” Li said. “I know it’ll be a very long conversation with BART Police and the chief.”

While BART directors and staff discussed potentially only taking photos of the rear license plates of vehicles, BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said photographs of the front of vehicles were more likely to capture the faces of suspects police are searching for.

“Property crimes in our lots are real, real high, and I’d like an image of a suspect,” Rojas said.

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