BART says it was an accident that license plate reader cameras sent info to federal database

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After a series of violent crimes at BART stations this year, the agency wants to increase its video surveillance. But riders and privacy advocates worry about how BART plans to use this surveillance. 

The East Bay Times uncovered that for eight months last year, BART collected riders’ license plate information and put it into a database that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can access.

From at least January through August of last year, BART sent pictures of 57,632 license plates to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which partners with ICE and other federal agencies, according to public records that Mike Katz-Lacabe, a San Leandro resident and privacy advocate, obtained in November and later shared with the Times.

According to a BART statement provided on Thursday to KTVU, the license plate reader system at MacArthur was initially installed in November of 2015, before there was a board policy.  After the installation of the system and before it was activated, the BART Board required a public hearing on its implementation, according to spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

 As part of this process, the BART Police Department held off on activating the system.  The board told police at an April 2016 meeting to not activate the system and police complied, Trost said.  

However, "at some point and without BPD’s knowledge, the cameras were accidentally activated and began sending data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.  It’s still unclear when exactly this happened," Trost said in the statement.

BART police weren't aware the system was active until Nov. 6, 2017, BART said.

Once it was discovered the system had been activated, Trost said that Police Chief Carlos Rojas "ordered that it be immediately powered off and completely uninstalled," Trost said in the statement.

The cameras remain in storage now until the district adopts a surveillance policy, BART said, and police also immediately asked the NCRIC to delete any data it received from the cameras.

ICE didn’t tell the Times if agents reviewed the data. 

On Thursday morning, the BART board will look at a  surveillance technology policy that will answer the following questions: How the technology is specifically used; whether and how often the data was shared without outside entities; and whether the surveillance cameras  detected or deterred criminal activity.

The ACLU is calling on BART to create a strict policy on how this surveillance technology is to be used.