Along the Watchtower

NEWS2 GT1448CHP introduces the county’s first license plate reader

Santa Cruz activists concerned about government surveillance held community meetings this past summer to learn more about the possibility of automated license plate reader (ALPR) cameras in Santa Cruz.

What they didn’t realize was that the technology was being installed where they weren’t looking.

Santa Cruz County California Highway Patrol (CHP) began using an ALPR camera—the first local use of the controversial surveillance technology—on Aug. 21.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz Police Department is currently developing protocols for its own proposed cameras, having received a grant last fall for the technology and another grant during the summer. The Santa Cruz chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes their use.

The CHP’s new camera, which is installed on a CHP cruiser, even took some local officials by surprise.

GT called up 1st District Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold, who was disappointed to hear that CHP had begun using an ALPR locally without community input. “It’s important for law enforcement to be transparent, and if there are legitimate reasons to have these, they should be very clear and talk about it in public,” Leopold says.

“Community input should happen before seeking funding,” Leopold adds.

ALPR supporters, including law enforcement officials, note that the technology has been used to track down stolen vehicles.

But activists from the ACLU say ALPRs have also already been used to monitor the activities of political activists. Moreover, a lawsuit is pending against the city of San Francisco by Denise Green, who was handcuffed and held at gunpoint after a San Francisco Police ALPR mistakenly identified her Lexus as stolen. The ACLU has also expressed fears that images could be used to track people.  

Like Leopold, California State Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) had been unaware that local CHP had begun using an ALPR, and has some concerns.

Stone says it’s actually in law enforcement agencies’ best interest to be forthcoming when they look into controversial technologies. “The more transparent they are, [the more it] helps their relationship with the community,” he says.

Stone adds that he will be asking CHP to give him a “heads up” next time officers want to introduce such a device, although he notes that they won’t be required to.

Sgt. Grant Boles of the Santa Cruz area CHP tells GT that data collected by their ALPR is stored for only 60 days. But Stone, who once worked as a computer industry attorney, still has trepidations.

“When you store things electronically, deleting things is not always that simple,” Stone says. “Once you have that data, even with the best of intentions, how do you control what’s a legitimate law enforcement purpose and what’s not?”

In essence, Stone’s concern is that an agency from another region could log on, scan the data, and save it.

CHP’s data storage is managed by Vigilant Solutions, a private company, which shares its data with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC). NCRIC is one of 80 fusion intelligence centers across the country run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that shares data, allowing other agencies to access it.

“CHP shares their data with NCRIC,” says NICRIC director Mike Sena. “When someone logs in through our system, they can search simultaneously through the CHP data as well.”

SCPD is also currently considering using NCRIC to host its license plate data if its program goes online, according to internal documents obtained by GT.

Former California State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) helped establish CHP’s 60-day data retention limit that restricts how long the information is stored and searchable. At this juncture, though, he says when it comes to privacy, the “access to data question” is critical.

“You may have confidence in the discretion of your local law enforcement, police chief or sheriff, but if he or she is sharing information in a regional database that’s accessible not only locally but perhaps even to agencies across state lines, then your confidence is almost beside the point,” says Simitian, who once represented Santa Cruz. “It only takes one person or one agency to misuse the data for all those protections to go out the window.”

The ACLU of California released a report this month titled “Making Smart Decisions About Surveillance: A Guide For Communities,” which includes a model “Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance.” Simitian, now a Santa Clara County Supervisor, is using the ordinance as a “template to govern the use of surveillance technology” over the hill. San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos has announced similar plans.

The ACLU report states that more than $60 million has been spent statewide on “invasive surveillance technology,” the vast majority of which is used without any public debate or policies to safeguard civil rights. Only six of 118 California communities surveyed held a public debate when new surveillance technology was introduced, according to ACLU research.

Memo, anyone?

This past summer, SCPD informed the City Council that they’d received another grant from the Department of Justice for $40,055 for more ALPRs. The grant was described in an information report, dated June 2, 2014, from SCPD to the city manager, and placed in city councilmember mailboxes on July 22, 2014, according to the city clerk’s office.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner and Vice Mayor Don Lane both say they missed the information reports and didn’t learn of the 2014 grant until speaking with GT. Given the controversy around the first grant, Posner and Lane both wished police hadn’t applied for that additional grant for license plate readers without council input. The ALPR issue is planned to come back to council once SCPD has finished developing protocols.

“There’s enough concern in the community around (ALPRs) that we should create an opportunity for the community to weigh in before we commit any resources to it,” Lane says.

The City Council’s five remaining members didn’t respond to requests for interviews with GT, nor did Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark, who is developing ALPR protocols.

Police Chief Kevin Vogel declined answering specific questions, saying via email, “there is no new information to report.”

PHOTO: While supporters say license plate readers help find stolen vehicles, the ACLU worries that agencies could use them to monitor people’s activities. LEONARD ZHUKOVSKY / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

To Top