BART Police Quietly Installed License Plate Surveillance Cameras at Oakland Station


ALPR cameras the BART police installed in the MacArthur Station Parking Garage. - DARWIN BONDGRAHAM
  • Darwin BondGraham
  • ALPR cameras the BART police installed in the MacArthur Station Parking Garage.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s police agency has already installed automated license plate reader surveillance cameras at a busy Oakland BART station, according to a memo BART Director Grace Crunican sent to the transit district’s board of directors in advance of their meeting tomorrow in Oakland.

According to Crunican, BART obtained state transportation funds in 2013 to install license plate reader cameras, or ALPRs, in the new parking garage at MacArthur Station as part of a pilot program. Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for BART, said BART spent $62,500 in state funds for the cameras and other equipment.

The installation was completed last November apparently without public notice. The pilot program is so that BART can test the cameras in advance of installing similar surveillance systems at other stations across the Bay Area, according to BART records.

The cameras can produce images of vehicles and people, and they automatically read license plates and check this information against law enforcement databases. According to a BART Police Department bulletin included in tomorrow's board meeting agenda packet, the ALPR system will be used to identify stolen or wanted vehicles, stolen license plates and missing persons; to gather information related to active warrants; for parking fee collection and enforcement; and for homeland security purposes.

According to BART records, all data gathered by BART’s ALPR system will be sent to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, a law-enforcement clearinghouse that shares surveillance information across agencies in the Bay Area.

Trost said there is no immediate plan to install ALPR at other BART stations. "Depending on how the MacArthur Parking Garage project goes, as well as identification of funding, we may install the technology at other locations in the future," Trost wrote in an email to the Express. She said that BART police could use the technology to prevent costly crimes such as a recent rash of catalytic converter thefts in BART parking lots.

But civil libertarians are worried about BART’s ALPR program because it could be misused by the transit agency or its employees to spy on the public or target constitutionally protected activities. They say they plan to attend tomorrow’s board meeting to make their concerns clear.

"Do we want to live in a world where every move we make and every keystroke we type are monitored?" said JP Massar, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group.

Massar said deploying ALPR across BART’s stations would also be expensive and may not lead to an improvement in public safety. "This is basically BART police being able to deploy a cool, new toy with no evaluation of cost versus benefit."

Mike Katz-Lacabe, a San Leandro resident who works in computer security, said BART’s implementation of ALPR surveillance without any public notice is disturbing. "The danger of BART using ALPR is that it is another use of surveillance technology that was implemented without any public discussion about its possible privacy implications prior to being implemented," said Katz-Lacabe. "The bulk of data collected, 99.7-99.8 percent will be of people who are not suspected of, or charged with any crime, and the data collected includes not just license plates, but photos of the vehicle and occupants."

Katz-Lacabe added: "the plan seems to be to install license plate readers at all BART parking lots. The public should know why law enforcement wants to install the license plate readers before they were installed. Only then can the public have some input into whether license plate readers should be installed at all."

Trost said BART is committed to striking the right balance between privacy rights and safety, and that the agency will follow the rules spelled out in Senate Bill 34, a new state law governing the use of license plate readers by law enforcement agencies.

"The BART Police Civilian Review Board provides oversight for the Department and will be actively involved in policy development [for ALPR]," wrote Trost. "Additionally, just as we did when we implemented body worn cameras, we have contacted the ACLU to involve them in the discussion. Lastly, and specifically related to ALPR technology, State law (SB 34 - October 2015) emphasizes transparency, policy, and procedure, while providing guidelines and requirements to ensure privacy and security."

But Tracy Rosenberg, the executive director of the Media Alliance and member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group, said BART’s ALPR program doesn’t appear to be following some of the letter and spirit spelled out in SB 34.

“What is the authorization for BART's statement that they will not issue a formal policy until the technology is adopted for 'long-term use’?'" said Rosenberg. "SB 34 has no provisions for pilot use exempting an ALPR [system] operator from the policy usage requirement."

Correction: the original version of this story stated that BART is already collecting data with its ALPR system installed at MacArthur Station. According to BART, the system has not yet been activated.