Should San Jose be using license plate readers to prevent retail theft?


Privacy advocates are concerned about a proposal to tackle crime in San José using license plate cameras.

San Jose City Council will discuss a recommendation on Tuesday for San Jose to spend $ 250,000 to rent license plate readers and associated software in the wake of several high-profile heists and thefts at retail stores from the bay area. A memo from the city notes that the investment is long overdue and repeats a directive from the board to the San Jose Police Department that was never implemented. The money comes from American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

San José Deputy Mayor Chappie Jones, one of the proponents of the proposal, told San José Spotlight that he believes license plate reading technology could be a big plus for the local app. of the law.

“We could at least have a chance to apprehend the perpetrators of these crimes,” he said.

San Jose has been using license plate readers since at least November 2016, but some proposals to expand its use have fizzled out. In 2015, Johnny Khamis, then city councilor, recommended the city placing license plate readers on garbage trucks to help locate stolen cars. This policy has not progressed after receiving significant backlash from privacy advocates, including the ACLU.

In 2019, Khamis said the city allocated money for cameras to be used on parking control vehicles, but the San Jose Police Department never purchased the cameras. Khamis is no longer part of the city council.

“These things could really help solve the crime faster,” Khamis told the San José Spotlight. “Our police department is understaffed and it is a tool that could be more effective in helping them catch suspects.”

Privacy advocates say San Jose should reject the proposal because license plate readers open the door to significant privacy breaches, and the city has not spelled out the details of how it will store or share the information collected by these cameras.

“License plate readers are used to track the movement of people in a clear and simple manner,” said Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “You install these license plate readers and you are going to be able to create a database of movements of innocent people. “

An example of an automatic license plate reader. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The SJPD did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Mayor Sam Liccardo and council members Matt Mahan and Magdalena Carrasco, who support the proposal. But at least one of the politicians backing this new allocation seems to have changed his mind about the technology.

In 2015, Jones opposed the proposal to install license plate readers on garbage trucks. He likened politics to something from George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”, according to the media at the time.

He didn’t like Khamis’ proposal at the time as there would have been cameras actually roaming the city. He says the city needs to study where to place cameras to deter or catch criminals, such as malls or parking lots.

The new proposal includes some restrictions on the use of cameras and collected data. According to the memo, license plate cameras would only be used to investigate crimes and not misdemeanors or vehicle code violations. The city would not be allowed to share data with federal immigration authorities.

If the award is approved, lawmakers will set out the details of collecting, using and retaining license plate read data next year.

Maass told the San José Spotlight that he has no faith in the California law enforcement agencies that follow or even develop effective privacy policies for license plate readers. He cited a 2019 California State Auditor report that examined the use of license plate readers in four law enforcement agencies. According to the report, 99.9% of the 320 million images stored by the Los Angeles Police Department were of vehicles that had not been reported for a potential crime.

Maass also noted that some law enforcement agencies share data with many jurisdictions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently sued the Marin County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly sharing license plate reader data with hundreds of external agencies. He said it could be a potential concern if San Jose distributes data with agencies outside of the city.

“If they share data outside of San Jose, it’s very difficult to make sure other cities are following the same restrictions,” he said.

Lourdes Turrecha, founder of The Rise of Privacy Tech, a company that supports privacy tech startups, told the San José Spotlight that it is legitimate to deter people from stealing. She urged city council to consider whether license plate readers will actually achieve this goal and whether it is a proportionate response to the crimes.

“Are there other less invasive ways to deter people from committing these thefts? Said Turrecha.

San Jose City Council meets at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. To learn more about how you can watch and participate, click here.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] Where @ EliWolfe4 on Twitter.


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