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Bay Area City Embraces Web of 50 Surveillance Cameras

Police say the cameras have enabled over 200 arrests in connection with nearly 700 criminal offenses, meaning that most arrests were connected to multiple crimes, including carjackings and homicides.

Every time someone drives in or out of Morgan Hill, an automated camera takes a swift snapshot of the license plate. A web of 50 cameras form a virtual net around the city, and their use has been accompanied by a string of arrests and a marked drop in some property crimes, according to the South Bay city’s police department.

Morgan Hill was among the first cities in the Bay Area to adopt such a complex network of license plate readers and, according to statistics provided by the police department, it’s among the most successful. But as the technology is set to spread through the region, privacy experts worry that the cameras also function as a surveillance system hiding in plain sight, even as the threat they pose goes under the radar.

The police department’s interest in license plate readers began in 2020 after a gunman fired fatal shots from one vehicle into another. When the department couldn’t immediately find the shooter, they began looking for tools that would help them track down vehicles associated with the crime.

They settled on automated license plate readers that take a snapshot of a moving car, garnering information about the license plate number as well as the make, model and color. If the license plate matches that of a stolen car or a vehicle associated with a crime or Amber Alert, the department is automatically notified and, after verifying the alert, can take action to apprehend the suspect.

In August 2021, the department started with 25 cameras as a pilot program. Later, it expanded to a stock of 50 covering the city’s entrances and exits, as well as the main roads.

Together with maintenance and data storage, the cameras cost $120,000 each year to maintain and are run by Flock Safety.

Two years into the program, the police department is declaring the cameras a success. Police say the cameras have enabled over 200 arrests in connection with nearly 700 criminal offenses, meaning that most arrests were connected to multiple crimes, including carjackings and homicides.

“It’s an amazing tool,” said police spokesperson Scott Purvis. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Additionally, the department says monthly averages for property crimes dropped significantly. Burglaries dropped from an average of around 10 a month in the years preceding the use of the cameras to just over six a month in the subsequent two years, police said — a 36 percent decrease. Larcenies, simple thefts that don’t involve an additional element, dropped by 14 percent, from around 42 per month to around 36, on average. They also say catalytic converter thefts dropped 66 percent.

When this news organization requested the monthly data backing up these figures, the department said it could not provide them.

“We are in the process of transitioning to a new Records Management System … and hope to be able to publish these reports in the very near future,” said the department in an email.

The network of cameras is meant to give investigators a clear idea of the path that a car associated with a crime takes through the city, but privacy concerns have arisen over the fact that the system captures and stores the data of all passing vehicles, regardless of whether they are associated with a crime.

According to a 2014 report by RAND Corp., a public policy research organization, this data could allow “authorities to reconstruct individuals’ movements across space and time.” Other privacy rights groups and residents worry about what they see as overreach, such as using the cameras for immigration enforcement or to investigate minor infractions such as speeding.

Many Morgan Hill residents are unaware of the system, bolstering the concerns of some privacy experts.

“All the data are being gathered without our consent,” said Roxana Marachi, who researches surveillance technology and formerly served on the San Jose Digital Privacy Advisory Task Force that reviewed license plate cameras. “The average person does not know.”

However, many residents said they were supportive of the new crime-fighting tool, despite those concerns. “I think it’s good” for solving crimes, said Morgan Hill resident Norma Martinez, “How far will it go? That’s the issue.”

The police department and Flock have taken steps to dispel some of the fears of mass surveillance. Flock sets a maximum storage time of 30 days for data, after which it is permanently deleted unless it is being used as evidence in a case. Each time an officer accesses the data set, they must submit their badge number and a reason for accessing the data. The record of their search is stored indefinitely. According to Flock, this discourages misuse of the system.

Additionally, the California Values Act offers protection from police departments sharing data with immigration enforcement, and Purvis says the technology cannot be used for traffic enforcement.

In a 2022 report on Flock’s license plate readers, the American Civil Liberties Union described the data protection measures as “necessary but not sufficient” and gave a series of recommendations for making the system less invasive. Chief among these suggestions was quickly deleting license plate images that did not result in a hit on a hotlist, perhaps after just a few minutes.

Regardless of the concerns, the tool seems to be spreading across the Bay Area. License plate readers are in use in San Jose, Vallejo, Campbell and Fremont, among others. Other cities, such as Oakland, are considering expanding their use of the system.

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