Aug 162020
 

San Ramon, a small city in Contra Costa County with a very low crime rate, approved spending more than $1.2 million to blanket the city in automated license plate readers (ALPRs) and surveillance cameras at its April 28, 2020, meeting.

The amount includes 12 stationary ALPRs at five locations from Vigilant Solutions, 35 ALPRs from Flock Safety and 46 Avigilon surveillance cameras. Eight police vehicles are already equipped with Vigilant ALPRs and Flock Safety cameras are already installed at the intersection of Camino Ramon and Crow Canyon and the northeast intersection of Crow Canyon Boulevard and Crow Canyon Place.

Map of proposed Flock Safety camera locations in San Ramon.
Purple icons represent proposed locations of Flock Safety ALPRs in San Ramon.

According to a presentation by San Ramon Police Lieutenant Cary Goldberg on April 28, 2020, the surveillance cameras would offer “coverage on every route of ingress/egress,” “184 viewing angles throughout out the city” and vehicles would likely pass “multiple cameras when travelling [sic] in San Ramon.”

Map of proposed locations for surveillance cameras in San Ramon.
The video camera icon indicates the proposed locations of surveillance cameras in San Ramon.

Goldberg said that data from Flock Safety cameras can be searched for animals and “If the camera detects an animal in the car, it will bring up that particular picture of the vehicle if it, in fact, captured it.” The data can also be searched for bicycles and people. “If it detects a person in a car, it’s going to show you an image of that person.” Goldberg said the locations were chosen so “we can capture all our routes of ingress, coupled with the situational [surveillance] cameras so we have a virtual fence around the city.”

During the presentation, Goldberg showed an image captured by a Flock Safety ALPR at Crow Canyon Place at Crow Canyon Road of a Honda Odyssey van with its California license plate clearly visible. Another image from the same location at night provided the license plate of a Ford pickup and the fact that the license plate had been seen 13 of the last 26 days (indicating that it was likely driven by a resident of San Ramon). We have redacted the license plate numbers in the presentation produced in response to our public records request.

Each of the Avigilon surveillance cameras actually has four cameras to provide 360-degree coverage. In addition to recording video 24×7, “The officers also have the ability to watch this live. Let’s say if we had an event, we had a protest, whatever the case is, the officers would have the ability to log in to one of these through the software and watch these live, watch any number of these cameras live.” According to Goldberg, a vehicle can be tagged and the software can display any video captured of that vehicle without searching individual camera footage. The software can also generate alerts for unusual motion detection, such as a car crash, according to Goldberg.

Proposed locations for the Vigilant Solutions ALPRs include Dougherty Road, the intersection of Camino Tassajara and Windermere Parkway, Crow Canyon Road, and the intersection of Alcosta Blvd and San Ramon Rd. [Note: The slide describing the Vigilant ALPRs showed an image of 3M ALPRs.]

Data Retention

The presentation to the San Ramon City Council said that the data collected by Vigilant Systems ALPRs would be retained for two years. Data from the Flock Safety ALPRs would be retained for 30 days. Data collected by the Avigilon surveillance cameras would be retained for 30 days. The San Ramon Police Department policy for license plate readers only states that the data will be retained for a minimum of one year. The police didn’t explain the difference in retention periods or the conflict with the existing policy and the City Council didn’t ask. When we asked Lt. Goldberg about why images from the surveillance cameras and Flock license plate readers were retained for 30 days while data captured by Vigilant Solutions license plate readers is retained for two years, he responded (but didn’t explain), “we have continuously maintained a 2 year retention period for the images uploaded into the LEARN [Vigilant Solutions] database.”

San Ramon Councilmember Phil O’Loane raised the only objection, based on the cost of the project, which was nearly double what he was expecting. O’Loane said, “My understanding of where we were starting was stationary license plate readers at key intersections and such and we’ve gone to something between zero and the City of London” noting that San Ramon has one of the lowest crime rates in the state. “I thought we were going to spend six or seven hundred thousand dollars and we’re doubling that. There’s been significant scope creep on this.” “We’ve got the same crime rate we’ve had since I was on the Council on average.” In fact, San Ramon’s crime rate is not only low but has declined significantly in the past 30 years.

The figure below is based on data reported by the San Ramon Police Department to the FBI and represents the annual crime rate per 100,000 people from 1985 to 2018.

Documents:

May 162020
 

According to a $60,000 grant the Novato Police Department recently received from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, new automated license plate readers (ALPRs) will be installed on Highway 37 to track terrorists.

However, no suspected terrorists have been tracked or identified with Novato’s existing ALPRs, which have been in use since 2012. We asked Novato City Manager Adam McGill for information on how many suspected terrorists had been detected or tracked with Novato’s existing ALPRs. McGill forwarded the request to Novato Police Lieutenant Christopher Jacob, who responded, “According to our records, we have not detected any hot plates related to or associated with terrorism.”

The grant application, filed in September 2019, claims that “License plates captured and identified by ALPR can alert authorities to wanted vehicles associated with suspected terrorists…”

“This project will install a 4 camera ALPR system on a preexisting CalTrans traffic operations pole located along the southern edge of US Hwy 37. This route connects US Hwy 101 to US Hwy 80 and serves as the primary route of travel into and between Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties. This location, according to recent CalTrans vehicle census information, has the potential of capturing and identifying no less than 12.7 million license plates a year.”

According to the FY 2016/2017 Proposed Budget and the 2016 Novato Police Annual Report, the existing ALPRs captured 1,195,272 images of vehicles and license plates in 2015 and 1,204,854 in 2016. With an estimated 2018 population of 55,655, that’s more than 26 license plate reads each year for each Novato resident. With an additional 12.7 million license plate reads per year, that would increase to more than 249 license plate reader each year per Novato resident. According to the Novato Police Department policy for ALPRs, the data collected is stored for a minimum of one year.

The 2012 Novato Police Annual Report states that the department received a $20,000 Homeland Security grant for mobile ALPRs to “identify, track and report wanted terrorist suspects and locate other wanted suspects identified by the Department of Justice.” ALPRs were installed on five police vehicles in 2012 and by 2014, an additional police vehicle had ALPRs installed. A mobile ALPR trailer funded by a $36,583.75 grant from the California State Homeland Security Grant Program was added in 2014.

Documents:

May 132016
 

Three stationary license plate cameras were recently installed on East Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Larkpur as part of a Regional Automated License Plate Regional Network (also called strategy and strategic plan) supported by the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) and funding from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative. The cameras record images of vehicles and license plates traveling in each direction along East Sir Francisco Drake Boulevard near the intersection with Larkspur Landing Circle.

The Central Marin Police Authority (CMPA) applied for the $132,553.96 Fiscal Year 2014 grant as part of a Regional Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) Plan. According to the application, “This project is intended to address the roving criminals and possible terrorist operating in the Bay Area…” In highlighting the large number of license plates that could be photographed, the application states, “This location has the potential of capturing and identifying at least 20 million license plates a year as a corridor between US Route 101 and Interstate 580…” However, in its ALPR Proposal slide deck, the Central Marin Police Authority noted that a CalTrans survey from 2010/2011 showed just 4,865,546 vehicles passing this location each day. This discrepancy is not explained in any of the available documents.

The grant application noted that an automated license plate reader trailer from the NCRIC was placed at 135 E. Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from June 17, 2011, to July 25, 2011. During that time, 22 stolen vehicles reportedly drove past the ALPR trailer.

A May 16, 2014, memo of the Bay Area UASI Advisory Group, stated, “During the February Advisory Group FY14 Regional Project vetting session, a Regional ALPR strategy was supported, however the majority felt the CPMA project was not optimal due to the location.” However, by May, the Advisory Group recommended that the project go forward: “The ALPR Focus Group is again making a recommendation that the Advisory Group consider allowing the UASI Management Team to direct the allocated FY14 funding to proceed with the CMPA ALPR project as the first step in building our Regional ALPR network.”

The Larkspur City Council unanimously approved funding for the purchase and installation of the three license plate readers at its meeting of December 17, 2014, without any public comment.

The data collected by the license plate readers will be stored in the NCRIC’s ALPR data warehouse for one year. NCRIC Director Mike Sena said in April 2015 that 46.5 million records were collected from agencies submitting data to its ALPR data warehouse. NCRIC currently collects license plate data from about 20 law enforcement agencies.

The cameras are visible in this Google Street Maps image from October 2015.

Photos of the installed cameras:

Three automated license plate readers on E. Sir Francisco Drake Blvd in Larkspur

Three automated license plate readers on E. Sir Francisco Drake Blvd in Larkspur

Closeup of three automated license plate readers on E. Sir Francisco Drake Blvd in Larkspur

Closeup of three automated license plate readers on E. Sir Francisco Drake Blvd in Larkspur

Source documents:

 

Apr 052016
 

The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NRCIC), the fusion center for Northern California, has three trailers with automated license plate readers that it loans out to other agencies.

The trailers are intended to look like speed limit warning signs that prominently display the speed of passing cars but are equipped with cameras that capture images of vehicles passing in both directions.

Trailer used by NCRIC to capture license plate and vehicle images

Trailer used by NCRIC to capture license plate and vehicle images

The NCRIC is managed by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, which handles requests for the trailers. The trailer picture was deployed in front of Willard Middle School in Berkeley in October 2015 after a series of attempted kidnappings.

The trailers and their deployment by a covert equipment crew is described as follows in an email exchange with NCRIC (emphasis added):

NCRIC has [redacted] portable ALPR trailers that look like speed signs and function that way as well, they are solar powered but if they can be placed near an alternate power source they will of course last longer than the average 5 at period, bottom line I they are available but very often loaned out to other agencies for similar reasons that you require one. Once approval is obtained on your end please let Sean O’Donnell or I know and we can enter your request on the NCRIC website for this equipment on your behalf etc, just let us know we’re here to help: Once approval is obtained as you mentioned, we can easily facilitate the placement of ALPR trailers with our NCRIC covert equipment crew, no problem.

As of January 2016, NCRIC had three trailers, which are referred to as PIPS LPR Speed Trailer #1, PIPS LPR Speed Trailer #2, and PIPS LPR Speed Trailer #3.

Requests for the ALPR trailers are submitted via NCRIC’s web site and then sent via email to NCRIC with the subject “NCHIDTA Equipment Request.” NCHIDTA is the abbreviation for Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which is also managed by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

Agency Date of Request Requested For
San Francisco Police June 16, 2015 Five days beginning on June 25, 2015
National Park Service June 17, 2015 One month beginning on June 24, 2015
Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office August 5, 2015 One week beginning on August 5, 2015
San Mateo Police Department September 1, 2015 As soon as possible for unknown period of time
Burlingame Police Department November 3, 2015 Two days beginning on December 16, 2015
San Bruno Police Department November 4, 2015 One week beginning on November 5, 2015
San Mateo County Sheriff November 5, 2015 One week beginning on November 10, 2015
Burlingame Police Department November 6, 2015 Five days beginning on November 23, 2015
San Mateo County Sheriff December 16, 2015 One to two weeks beginning on December 21, 2015

However, the information released by NCRIC did not include any information as to whether an ALPR trailer was actually deployed. For example, the National Park Service requested an ALPR trailer, but it was never deployed.

Technical Details

The trailer can operate on battery power for up to 5 days and takes 24 hours to full recharge. There are four cameras in two housings that can capture images of vehicles and license plates coming towards the trailer and going away from the trailer. The cameras are manufactured by PIPS Technologies, which is now owned by 3M. The cameras are surrounded by infrared LEDs that operate in the infrared spectrum at 950nm 3M_P634-Camera. A Garmin GPS is used to provide the geographic location data (latitude and longitude) that is stored with each of the images captured by the cameras. The data is uploaded via a cellular data connection to the NCRIC’s ALPR data warehouse, which had 46.5 million records as of April 2015 (see Who’s watching who?: License plate readers used throughout San Mateo County).

Source documents:

Emails between NCRIC and law enforcement agencies

License Plate Reader Data Sharing at Northern California Regional Intelligence Center

 

Shortly after Palantir’s successful bid, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) began gathering and sharing license plate reader data from law enforcement agencies throughout Northern California.

Fifteen agencies have a signed Memorandum of Understanding with NCRIC to share license plate reader data: