During a cool Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, Brian Hofer and his younger brother were driving home to Oakland along I-80 in Contra Costa County.
The rental vehicle they were driving, a Kia from the rental company Getaround, was reported stolen from San Jose just the month before. Yet the report was not updated after the vehicle was recovered.
An automatic license plate reader near the San Pablo Lytton Casino picked up the not-so-stolen car and alerted authorities. Minutes later, Hofer and his brother were surrounded by squad cars and law enforcement officers with guns drawn yelling at them to exit the vehicle.
According to a statement from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office given to KTVU, this is standard protocol. After about 40 minutes, the two brothers were free to go.
Hofer noted to KTVU how disturbing it is that “somebody could pull a gun on you because of an alert that a computer system gave them.” He also noted that he carries the “privilege of skin color,” implying that it could have ended very differently for a Black or brown individual.
Luckily, that was not the case when a Black mother, Brittney Gilliam, and her four young children found themselves in a nearly identical situation in Aurora, Colorado. Gilliam and her children were all handcuffed and also held at gun point as police slowly came to realize that the automatic license plate reader had flagged their SUV with Colorado license plates as a stolen motorcycle from Montana with an identical plate number.
San Jose Police Department has been using automatic license plate readers in a limited capacity since at least November 2016. Yet they are currently testing out a much more expansive deployment that accompanies their gunshot detection technology pilot program, which I wrote about last month highlighting the technology’s dangerous and deadly potential.
Last month a community meeting was held in the cool shadows of Mosaic Elementary—a Rocketship public school south of Little Saigon—regarding the gunshot detection tech pilot program. A representative from SJPD claimed that the use of automatic license plate readers makes their gunshot detection tech superior to other competing products.
Just as two wrongs don’t make a right, adding two bad products together doesn’t somehow make them a single great product. You can’t fix flawed technology with more flawed technology.
I carried my concerns regarding gunshot detection tech and automatic license plate readers to the same community meeting.
Knowing the stories told above, I asked SJPD if the plates captured by the new license plate readers will be stored in the same database as the department’s other readers. My concern was that if they were, that would increase the risk of something happening in our city like what happened to Hofer and Gilliam.
I was told that was not the case and that they are completely separate systems. But, as far as I can tell, there’s no guarantee that won’t change some time in the future; especially considering how excited the department is about automatic license plater readers.
Also in that meeting, a San Jose Police Department representative acknowledged that a claim made by V5 Systems, the technology’s developer, that their systems are “up to 90% (accurate)” has not been verified by the department. Apparently, that was a driving force behind the pilot.
Yet, when asked what would constitute success of the pilot program, the response was “that no one is victimized in this neighborhood anymore.” However, the SJPD representative recognized that doesn’t necessarily determine the accuracy of the system.
It would appear that this pilot is theater and that there is no plan to verify the V5 Systems’ accuracy claims. Although the data gathered by the pilot program will be published publicly, no clear definition of successful metrics could be provided when asked.
The SJPD representative went on to say that the department is depending on a “deterrence factor” and that they want people to know the system is there in hopes that potential offenders will “think twice.” Yet when presented with the fact that surveillance technology has been shown time and time again to not deter crime, the response was “I hope you’re wrong.”
A police captain present at the meeting subsequently followed up by asserting the department’s gunshot detection technology and automatic license plate readers are not “surveillance” technologies because they’re not surveilling any single person, a claim that is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.
As I stepped out of that meeting that warm evening on Owsley Avenue, I was left with the impression that SJPD is severely out of touch with reality when it comes to the hopes and plans with its own technology. They are taking seemingly arbitrary and absolutely unverified claims at face value. Claims that could be a matter of life and death.
I’m honestly not sure how we can trust them to be responsible with surveillance technology when they present themselves as clearly not understanding its defining characteristic.
The question I consistently ask myself is, do SJPD leaders realize that these technologies won’t solve the problems they profess to? If they do, what is their intention in deploying it? If they don’t, what is causing their ignorance? Either way, in the long run, it’s not good for San Jose.
To make your voice heard on SJPD’s pilot program of these technologies, please sign this petition demanding more transparency around the technology, its claims and the department’s intentions.
San José Spotlight columnist Ethan Gregory Dodge is the founder of the Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County. He is also the creator of Surveillance Today, a weekly newsletter and podcast discussing current events in surveillance. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Ethan at [email protected] or follow @egd_io on Twitter.