Recently, the Half Moon Bay City Council considered allowing automated license plate readers that could track every vehicle that travels past the cameras, but now that discussion may be postponed after the state announced it would begin an audit of the systems and their use. 

On June 26, the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted to direct the state auditor to look into the use of automated license plate readers by law enforcement agencies. The audit will, among other things, determine whether law enforcement agencies use information from the readers, what vendor is used to access the information, and whether polices and procedures are in place governing the use and sharing of ALPR information. 

It will also look specifically at their use in four jurisdictions in the state, including the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Fresno Police Department. 

Automated license plate recognition systems work by capturing an image of a vehicle and the vehicle’s license plate. It can be used by law enforcement to obtain license plate information and compare it to databases, or a “hot list,” of vehicles of interest to law enforcement. 

City Manager Bob Nisbet said last week he is aware of the state audit and intends to encourage the City Council at its Tuesday meeting to hold off on further discussion of ALPR implementation until the audit is complete. 

Council members and the public were first introduced to the idea of ALPRs being used in Half Moon Bay in May. At a City Council meeting, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Capt. Saul Lopez and Mike Sena, executive director of Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, proposed a site survey on three locations in the city where they said automated license plate readers could assist law enforcement in identifying vehicles involved in criminal activity. 

They suggested using technology from Vigilant Solutions, which is an industry leader in the manufacture of the systems and a company that has come under scrutiny because of its products. 

Several people spoke out about privacy concerns related to the use of ALPRs. Mayor Harvey Rarback and Councilwoman Deborah Penrose were also critical of the technology. 

At the meeting, Penrose stated there was no justification for a system that could potentially be used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its efforts to locate people. While there have been reports of ICE getting ahold of such information from local jurisdictions, California state law prohibits sharing license plate and personal information with immigration officials or out-of-state or federal agencies. 

The audit request, drafted by state Sen. Scott Wiener, asked for an impartial review to assess whether agencies were complying with that law. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, assisted in drafting the request and has filed hundreds of public records requests related to ALPRs. 

“Most agencies are using boilerplate policies that they don’t actually follow,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher for the foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in the digital world. “In some cases, they didn’t have policies at all until we pointed out that policies are required.” 

Often agencies were not conducting audits, were over-sharing data with other agencies and not keeping a proper log of use, explained Maass.

“In general, we don’t believe that agencies are fulfilling their legal obligations for this technology,” Maass said. 

Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that revealed more than 9,000 ICE officers have gained access to the license plate reader database run by Vigilant Solutions. Additionally, more than 80 local law enforcement agencies from several states have agreed to share license plate information with ICE. 

The state audit will review whether government practices match the law by requiring agencies to answer questions and open their data systems, according to Maass.

“With ALPR, they are collecting data on every driver and storing it, sometimes for years at a time, even though more than 99 percent of that data will never be relevant to an investigation,” Maass said. “Having that data sitting around is inviting abuse by police themselves or breaches from the outside.” 

The audit is estimated to require 2,840 hours of work or about seven months to complete, according to the State Auditor’s Office. 

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