May 20, 2022

Botu Linum

The Car & Automotive Devotees

BART to install license plate cameras under Motorola contract

3 min read

After years of hashing out concerns with privacy advocates, the BART board on Thursday approved an up to $2.4 million contract to install license plate readers at parking lots throughout the transit system.

The unanimously approved contract with Motorola enables the transit operator to expand the plate readers beyond an already existing pilot at the MacArthur BART station with seven mobile camera units attached to vehicles and two fixed cameras. The contract authorizes BART to purchase up to 65 additional camera units over a period of five to seven years.

The readers will eventually give commuters the ability to have their parking payments automatically deducted from an account, said Alicia Trost, a BART spokesperson. But Trost cautioned that while the contract authorizes the general manager to purchase more cameras, the transit operator has not identified funding beyond an initial $318,112 to fulfill the entire $2.4 million contract.

Supporters of the cameras say they will increase rider safety, help deter auto burglaries that have plagued some East Bay BART parking lots, and streamline parking payments and ticketing.

License plate reading technology is already widely used around the state in law enforcement and on roadways, most notably across the Bay Area’s toll bridges and FasTrak lanes. However, research into the technology’s ability to deter crime and catch thieves is mixed. One 2005 study cited by BART claimed the technology led to a 50% increase in stolen vehicle recovery in Ohio.

BART, which also employs CCTV cameras in multiple parking lots, said they have used the technology to identify at least one stolen vehicle entering the MacArthur station parking lot, where the cameras are in use, and track down suspects in three auto burglaries.

In 2019 before the pandemic emptied BART stations and parking lots, there were over 3,100 larcenies and auto burglaries in the transit system, according to police data, with the vast majority of those crimes concentrated in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Those numbers were a 23% increase from 2017, however, vehicle thefts saw a 41% decrease during the same time period. Property crime in the transit system was down 70% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Thursday’s board decision was over six years in the making. In April 2016 the board aborted the system’s first attempt to start a license plate reader pilot program after privacy advocates said there needed to be adequate precautions in place to ensure the surveillance technology – and the information it collects – is not abused.

Then BART in 2017 activated the plate cameras for eight months without the board’s knowledge and sent the information into a database accessible by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, causing further uproar.

BART approved a set of transparency and accountability rules that among other restrictions limits most data storage to 30 days. In 2019 the board approved the use of the license plate readers, setting up Thursday’s vote to supply the system with cameras.

Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland’s privacy commission, who was a fierce critic of BART’s original license plate reader program, said the transit agency has come a long way in meeting the concerns of advocates.

“We think BART is the gold standard,” said Hofer. “As far as complying with the surveillance ordinance, being transparent and acting in good faith we’re not aware of any violations.”

BART Director Robert Raburn, who represents parts of Oakland and Alameda County, praised the cameras during the meeting on Thursday, saying it would help keep cars secure while people use the BART system.

“The number one source of crime in Fruitvale (station) is over in the parking garage,” Raburn said. “It’s like a magnet for crime.”

BART promises transparency with license plate readers: Are privacy advocates satisfied?