San Jose expanding use of license plate reader cameras, reviewing data privacy

The City of San Jose is planning to expand its use of license plate-reading cameras to help solve crimes. On Tuesday, the city council is also expected to tighten its data protection policies to make sure that information is only used for legitimate purposes.  

Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue is one of the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians with three hit-and-run fatalities here last year. That’s why it was selected for the first of the city’s fixed license plate reading cameras which are mounted high on traffic light poles.

Resident Matthew Mansfield said he knows firsthand how dangerous this intersection is, having had a close call just up the street.  "I was walking down the street and I hear this screeching of tires and the car jumped over the curb and went between me and the street," Mansfield said.  Fortunately he was not hurt, but he says license-plate cameras could have helped. "So that’s good for following up," Mansfield said. 

In November 2021, the city approved another $250,000 to expand the use of these cameras in areas with a high number of accidents and in certain areas with a high number of "smash and grab" thefts. But with the expansion come new concerns about how the data is used and the city is now finishing up a complete privacy review. Mansfield does not feel the cameras are a privacy concern. 

The updated privacy practices are based upon four key principals: Transparency, controlled data sharing, use only for a specific purpose, and public notice such as signs like this one posted at the intersection.  Resident Steve Pons, crossing the intersection on his bike, said he supports the cameras. "I don’t think it is a bad thing. You know it keeps people accountable and, you know, if something does go wrong then people can be held accountable for that you know," Pons said. 

The new policy for the San Jose Police Department, which will be considered at the city council meeting on Tuesday, specifically allows these cameras for just a few key uses:

   -Investigating crimes

   - Locating missing persons

  - Locating suspect vehicles 

    The policy prohibits:

 - Collecting any data not in public view

 - Monitoring legal activities such as rallies and protests. 

 - Sharing with immigration authorities

 - Selling information

Dr. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said:  "The key concerns with automated license plate readers really lay in how much data is collected and how long it is retained for."  Guariglia said ‘best practices’ with these cameras are to only use them for active police investigations. San Jose is proposing to retain the data from the cameras for one year.  "But for all of the other people just going to and from work, or going through these intersections day after day, there is no reason to retain their data and their location," Guariglia said.

Late on Monday, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo released a policy memo in advance of the meeting on Tuesday.  He is calling for additional study to make sure the cameras are not used around highly sensitive sites, such as Planned Parenthood locations. 

The full city council will take up the issue of the license plate cameras, and the data privacy issues, at its regular meeting on Tuesday afternoon.