Automated license plate readers will help parking availability but some express concern about privacy issues

New parking meters with credit card payment options are part of the goBerkeley program. Photo: Steer Davies Gleave/goBerkeley
New parking meters with credit card payment options are part of the goBerkeley program. Photo: Steer Davies Gleave/goBerkeley

Berkeley has launched a program to use a controversial technology that automatically reads license plates on cars to optimize and enforce parking, part of a larger effort to encourage more Berkeley residents not to drive.

The program, which began in May, aims to make the tedious and time-consuming process of conducting manual surveys of downtown parking — which takes more than two months from start to finish — more efficient, Matthai Chakko, city spokesman, told Berkeleyside. The city uses data from the surveys — how often and at what times parking spaces are occupied, for example — to adjust parking pricing and time limits based on people’s behavior.

“It’s extremely labor intensive to input every single license plate and license plate readers automate the manual data collection,” Chakko said, adding that it improved the accuracy of the assessments and allows them to be conducted more frequently. The readers also eliminate the need to manually chalk tires to enforce time limits, he said.

But some civil libertarians have expressed concern that the data collected by police can be used to track the movements of individuals and have called for tighter control of the data collected. The Police Review Commission is set to discuss the technology and its implications at a future meeting. It was going to discuss the issue Wednesday but the meeting was canceled due to lack of a quorum, according to Katherine J. Lee, who staffs the commission.


Berkeley has equipped five parking enforcement vehicles with the automated license plate readers (ALPR), which will also be used to conduct parking enforcement — such as booting or towing vehicles with more than five citations that are more than 30 days old — and search for stolen cars.

The use of the technology means parking enforcement officers won’t have to mark tires anymore to gauge how long a car has been parked in a particular space. That should close a loophole where car owners whose time had expired just rolled their cars backward or forward to hide chalk marks. Now, drivers will have to move, which will free up the parking space.

The Berkeley City Council elected to add the readers as part of the goBerkeley initiative, which was made permanent January 27, 2015. The program — initially sponsored by a grant — aims to reduce driving and congestion by using dynamic meter pricing to increase turnover, which in turn provides more travel and parking choices. It operates in downtown Berkeley, Southside around Telegraph Avenue, and the Elmwood commercial district.

A picture of the ALPR from Genetec, which is providing the devices for Berkeley
A picture of the ALPR from Genetec, which is providing the devices for Berkeley

Automatic license plate readers use digital cameras and software to capture still images and transform them into a text readout of license plates. Berkeley staff will analyze the data to “adjust the price of meter and off-street facilities … to maintain a level of parking availability that minimizes parking-related search traffic,” according to a city memo.

Berkeley purchased the readers from Canada-based Genetec. The equipment will cost $450,000 over the course of the five-year contract, Chakko said.


The technology is used by other Bay Area cities such as San Francisco, but has generated concern from civil rights watchdogs who caution that the readers have been misused in the past and potentially pose a threat to civil liberties.

“Law enforcement agencies assuage people by saying it’s for a limited purpose, but when we read the fine print none of those things are either written into law or enforceable by law,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “Sophisticated surveillance technology can be abused and misused, and there needs to be a thoughtful conversation about where and how we apply it.”

For its part, the city says the readers follow Berkeley Police guidelines for use — contained in an administrative order issued Feb. 18 — and that there was an informed, public discussion about implementing the technology.

“We had a public process, and we want to use the tech and be respectful of the process,” Chakko said. The data collected for parking optimization is anonymized, he says, and there are strict guidelines for how enforcement data is stored.

Ozer says the BPD policy is phrased in such a way that it gives the department broad authority with which to use the readers. And since it is not an ordinance, Ozer says, it doesn’t “have the force of law. There are no strong real safeguards about how it’s being used. If it were violated, what would be the repercussion?”


Officials considered alternatives to the readers such as “smart” parking meters and in-pavement sensors but ultimately decided they weren’t suitable. The smart meters weren’t accurate enough, and the sensors would cost too much to install and operate, according to a memo from former City Manager Christine Daniel.

The BPD policy allows the city to store any “hits” collected via the readers for up to 365 days, and the “metadata” for up to 30 days, according to the policy.

In an unusual provision, the BPD policy allows vehicle owners access to data captured by the readers if they demonstrate proof of ownership and identity.

Berkeley does not plan to make the information gathered by the ALPR accessible to the public because it considers the information confidential, according to a police memo. A number of other police departments in places like San Diego County have also taken that stance, which the ACLU of Southern California is challenging in court. The city of Oakland, in contrast, has released its ALPR records.

This story was updated after publication to report that the PRC meeting scheduled for tonight was canceled due to lack of a quorum.

Related:
City looks to continue goBerkeley parking program (08.07.15)
Drivers say goBerkeley program made it easier to park (01.16.15)
Council to consider higher rates, evening hours for some parking meters (03.21.14)

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