BART unanimously approves use of license plate readers in station parking lots

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BART unanimously approved the use of controversial technology that will eventually capture license plate information and images for every driver who enters a station parking lot, pending pilot program approval. 

The board of directors voted Thursday to introduce the surveillance system as BART is seeking to advance security measures and hopes the cameras will cut down crime and help riders feel more safe. 

“It does give our riders peace of mind that they’re going to leave their vehicle parked for a lengthy period of time in our parking lot, and hopefully it will be safe,” said BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas. “If for some reason a crime does occur, we will have a mechanism to investigate.”

It’s the second time BART has rolled out this technology. Critics reacted to the first attempt with concern over extensive surveillance and in 2016 BART shut the program down. Two cameras were installed at Oakland’s MacArthur station during the process, but they weren’t supposed to be recording anything. 

According to records obtained by  Bay Area News Group last year, BART staff turned the cameras on and recorded tens of thousands of license plate photos in 2017. The news agency found that BART shared information with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a law enforcement database accessible by agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Under the new proposal, photos and plate information can only be stored for 30 days unless it’s part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The first proposal allowed BART to store such information for a year. BART will also be limited on sharing data with third parties, including ICE. 

In February, 2 Investigates learned Brian Hofer, a privacy advocate and chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, filed a federal suit against Contra Costa County deputies after he and his brother were pulled over when a license plate reader alerted police they were driving in a stolen car. The deputies drew their guns and detained the brothers. It was eventually determined the rental car they were driving had been stolen from San Jose in October and the proper authorities were never updated after the vehicle had been recovered.  

But Hofer was pleased with the changes BART made in response to critics. He told The Mercury News "they made a really strong move in the right direction."

The new program will attempt to chip away at auto burglaries and car thefts on BART-owned lots, which were on the rise last year and totaled $7 million in loses. BART said there's a 50 percent recovery rate nationwide in areas that use similar technology. Sacramento has been using the same type of cameras for 15 years and it has saved them over $9 million. 

Mike McCabe, a privacy advocate who has been critical of the readers in the past, said that this 30-day retention policy is a "huge step forward." 

BART will launch its new surveillance system with a pilot program at one lot, and if that goes well, the readers will be installed at all 48 BART station parking lots.