SAN JOSE, Calif. -- San Jose has approved leasing new license plate reading cameras, although questions remain about their deployment.
The San Jose City Council agreed Tuesday to spend $250,000 in federal relief funds on license plate reading cameras. The proposal was prompted by several high-profile robberies and thefts at retail stores in the Bay Area. Details about collection, use and retention of license plate reading data will be hammered out by lawmakers early next year.
The council also approved American Rescue Plan funding allocations to expand the SJ Bridge program and food distribution, among other things.
Councilmembers questioned where cameras would be deployed and whether they would be mobile or fixed, but expressed enthusiasm for rolling them out. Councilmember Maya Esparza noted her constituents in District 7 have experienced an uptick in violence.
"It has impacted the psyche of people who are afraid to go get boba because they don't know if their car is gonna be broken into or they're gonna be accosted," Esparza said.
Assistant Police Chief Paul Joseph explained the city has some license plate readers deployed on vehicles. The new ones authorized by the city would be stationary, but capable of being deployed to different parts of the city.
"This memo is dealing with major organized retail crime," Joseph said, noting a license plate reader installed at Grand Century Mall recently helped officers apprehend burglary suspects. "However, there's other issues they can also help us with, and help us both deter crime and identify and apprehend suspects."
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who co-signed the memo requesting the cameras, said previous efforts to install cameras have prompted concerns about infringing on civil liberties. He said the city will have to figure out how to appropriately deploy cameras at busy intersections versus residential neighborhoods on a case-by-case basis.
"The 'where' matters a lot, and the context matters," Liccardo said. "I don't think there's one size that fits all."
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, one of the supporters of the proposal, told San Jose Spotlight before the meeting he believes license plate reading technology could be a big asset for local enforcement.
"We could at least have a shot at apprehending the perpetrators of those crimes," he said.
San Jose has been using license plate readers since at least November 2016, but some proposals to expand its use have fizzled. In 2015, then-Councilmember Johnny Khamis recommended the city place license plate readers on garbage trucks to help locate stolen cars. This policy failed to advance after it received significant backlash from privacy advocates, including the ACLU.
In 2019, Khamis said the city allocated money for cameras to use on parking enforcement vehicles, but the San Jose Police Department never purchased the cameras. Khamis is no longer on the City Council.
"These things could really help solve crime faster," Khamis told San Jose Spotlight. "Our police department is understaffed and this is a tool that could be more effective at helping them catch suspects."
Privacy advocates say license plate readers open the door to significant invasions of privacy, and the city hasn't figured out how it will retain or share information gathered by these cameras.
"License plate readers are used to track people's movements, plain and simple," said Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "You put up these license plate readers and you're going to be able to create a database of innocent people's movements."
The proposal includes some restrictions on the use of cameras and data collected. According to the memo, license plate cameras would only be used to investigate felony crimes, not misdemeanors or vehicle code violations. The city wouldn't be allowed to share data with federal immigration authorities.
Maass told San Jose Spotlight he has no confidence in California law enforcement agencies following -- or even crafting -- effective privacy policies for license plate readers. He cited a 2019 report from the California State Auditor that examined the use of license plate readers at four law enforcement agencies. According to the report, 99.9 percent of the 320 million images stored by the Los Angeles Police Department were for vehicles that hadn't been flagged for a potential crime.
Maass also noted some law enforcement agencies share data with numerous jurisdictions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently sued the Marin County Sheriff's Office for allegedly sharing license plate reader data with hundreds of outside agencies. He said this could be a potential concern if San Jose distributes data with any agencies outside the city.
"If they're sharing data outside of San Jose, it's very hard to make sure other cities are abiding by the same restrictions," he said.
Lourdes Turrecha, founder of The Rise of Privacy Tech, a company that supports privacy technology startups, told San Jose Spotlight it's legitimate to deter people from committing robberies. She urged the City Council to consider whether license plate readers will actually achieve this goal, and whether it's a proportionate response to the crimes.
"Are there other less privacy-invasive ways to deter people from committing these robberies?" Turrecha said.