BART Board approves policy governing use of license plate readers at station parking lots

The BART Board of Directors approved a policy Thursday to govern the installation and use of cameras that can capture images of vehicle license plates at the transit system’s parking lots and garages.

The board at its meeting in Oakland voted unanimously to approve the policy that, in the wake of BART’s aborted previous attempt in 2016, seeks to balance security improvements with privacy protections.

“This has been a long time coming. In fact it’s been too long,” BART Director John McPartland said. “It’s long overdue.” The approved policy states that the cameras will operate 24 hours a day and will be used “for BART criminal investigations and to monitor activity to protect against harm to persons and property.”

“The security of our patrons and riders is our top priority.”

BART Director Debora Allen

The board was presented with BART crime statistics showing car break-ins and vehicle thefts, along with catalytic converter thefts, amounted to an estimated $7 million in losses to BART riders in 2017 and 2018. License plate readers have been shown to lead to the recovery of half of all vehicles stolen from areas that have implemented the technology, BART’s manager of security programs Mimi Bolaffi told the board.

In addition to helping with the recovery of stolen property, the technology will serve as a crime deterrent, Bolaffi said. It will “put criminals onnotice that if they come into our (parking) lots, their vehicles will be identified,” said Bolaffi, who also noted that BART has received “very positive” feedback from the public about the potential use of the technology.

Still, skeptics of this type of “mass surveillance” technology point out that it can lead to intrusions into law-abiding riders’ privacy, as well as civil rights abuses.

“You should be thinking not about whether or how this will work, but whether you want to do this at all,” said J.P. Massar, a member of Oakland Privacy, an advocacy group.

Another member of Oakland Privacy, Mike Katz-Lacabe, praised the board for engaging in an open and public process when drafting the new policy and for taking privacy concerns to heart, which it failed to do when initially installing license plate readers at the MacArthur BART station in 2016. “I’m not a fan of the mass-surveillance part of this, but we’re trying to be realistic,” Katz-Lacabe said.

Also, while the policy specifically states that information collected by the cameras won’t be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “or any agency conducting immigration enforcement or removal operations,” it’s unclear how much power BART will have to prevent other agencies from accessing the data.

That’s partly why Katz-Lacabe said it was a “huge deal” that the new policy prevents the license plate information from being stored for longer than 30 days — barring a subpoena, court order or ongoing investigation.

Thursday’s BART board vote doesn’t mean that cameras will be cropping up all over the system immediately. The four cameras BART initially installed at the MacArthur parking lot will be placed at a yet-to-be-determined station as part of a pilot program that will last for several months. The board will then have to hold another vote to approve a system-wide implementation of the technology.

BART officials estimated that it will cost between $15,000 to $22,000 to install each fixed-location camera. The policy also envisions the use of cameras mounted on police vehicles and carried by officers, but no cost estimate for those cameras was provided.

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