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Residents Voice Privacy Concerns Over License Plate Reading

Hesperia, Calif., will buy seven more automated license plate reader cameras, despite a number of residents who expressed concern that the surveillance technology could turn the city into an Orwellian dystopia.

Privacy
(TNS) — The City of Hesperia, Calif., will buy seven more automated license plate reader cameras, despite concerns from a number of residents who expressed concern that the surveillance technology could turn the city into an Orwellian dystopia.

The new readers will be added to the 31 automated licensed plate reader cameras, purchased nearly five years ago, which are positioned at various street intersections within the city.

Longtime resident Bob Nelson told the city council on Tuesday that 72 years after the publication of George Orwell’s “1984,” the cameras would lead to the same mass surveillance suffered by the masses in the late English author’s novel.

“Don’t start tracking us,” Nelson said. “What’s next, automated facial recognition cameras throughout the city? Approval is a step in a bad direction toward a big brother world.”

Orwell’s novel predicts a totalitarian, surveillance state wherein speech is monitored, unacceptable verbiage is deleted, history is rewritten or erased, and citizens are eliminated or shunned for holding certain views.

Ken Foist addressed the council with claims that the new license plate readers would be used by “Big Brother” — another “1984” reference — to monitor citizens and could be a “prelude to red light cameras.”

After the meeting, resident Sabrina Chacon, 37, told the Daily Press she feared information retrieved by the plate readers will be used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to track down undocumented immigrants.

The council eventually approved the purchase agreement with Vigilant Solutions in a not-to-exceed amount of $140,687 to buy the seven more fixed camera readers.

City Manager Nils Bentsen said that the cameras do not track or follow people, but monitor vehicle information, which can help police find vehicles that were stolen or involved in a crime.

Councilman Larry Bird told the audience the new cameras are “not a slippery slope” toward the purchase of red-light cameras, which would never be implemented on his watch.

Councilman Bill Holland said the cameras stop criminal behavior, keep the community safe and have proven to be effective.

Mayor Cameron Gregg said the cameras are a vital tool in recovering stolen vehicles.

When one resident told the council that monies should be used to fix roads rather than buy cameras, Mayor Pro Tem Brigit Bennington said the roads are bad, “but criminals are worse.”

Councilwoman Rebekah Swanson, who supports the use of the plate readers, said she was originally concerned about whether the cameras would interfere with citizens’ privacy and liberties.

Swanson said after researching the subject, she realized that “safety comes at a cost” and that the readers work like cameras at ATMs, “taking photos of criminals who stole money from an account.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has characterized license-plate reading cameras as a “powerful surveillance technology that can be used to invade the privacy of individuals as well as to violate the rights of entire communities.”

Other groups have criticized companies like Vigilant Solutions, which the city will contract with for its system, because they say the companies collect and sell the cameras’ data, a majority of which involves drivers who have not been accused of a crime.

A state law passed in 2015 requires that operators of an automated license plate reader (ALPR) system “implement a usage and privacy policy in order to ensure that the collection, use, maintenance, sharing, and dissemination of ALPR information is consistent with respect for individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”

The fixed cameras have assisted the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in investigating missing persons, stolen vehicles, as well as locating people wanted for criminal activity, according to a city staff report.

Last year, the City of Victorville approved the installation of 37 license plate readers at a cost of nearly $400,000, the Daily Press reported.

During that time, Victorville Sheriff’s Captain Rick Bessinger told the council that plate readers in Apple Valley and Hesperia had already assisted his department in solving crimes.

The plate readers are equipped with a scanner that captures and records each license plate as it passes by. That data can be cross-checked against a state law enforcement database of stolen vehicles.

The retrieved information can also be used during AMBER alerts and to find vehicles connected to missing persons.

When the license plate is recorded and processed through law enforcement databases, information about a flagged vehicle is received from sheriff’s dispatch and a call for service is created.

Vigilant Solutions is the vendor that is currently used throughout the county by the sheriff’s department.

All information captured is owned by the sheriff’s department and used for investigative purposes only, according to a city staff report.

But license-plate readers have sparked concerns in other Southern California cities. The city council in Coachella recently put off a proposal to buy cameras for its city after a recent council hearing.

During the meeting, Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who focuses on technology and policing, called ALPR systems “ripe for abuse in ways that really harm people.”

In an interview, Tajsar told The Desert Sun newspaper that while ALPR cameras aim to capture limited information, the data can be compiled in ways that might make people uncomfortable.

“We shouldn’t think about it just in the context of license-plates because the movement and location information is very sensitive, precisely because it can be so revealing. You can start to create maps of people’s movements in a way that then reveals where they go, the routes they take and at what times,” he said.

With enough cameras, he said, patterns could be detected that, for example, reveal people’s political affiliations if the same license plates are captured heading to the same weekly protests.

Tajsar said that even though police agencies may not obtain names or cross-reference information, if they “blanket a city enough” with the license-plate readers, they can figure out where people work and live. “The more data you have, the more invasive and the more revealing the information becomes,” he said.

© 2021 Daily Press, Victorville, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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