San Leandro Man Star of WSJ Story On Police Surveillance

School board member Mike Katz-Lacabe questions San Leandro's license plate surveillance policies in a Wall Street Journal story about Big Brother technologies.


Mike Katz-Lacabe is known around city hall as the guy who brings a video camera to public meetings and posts his recordings online.

This weekend Katz-Lacabe stars in a Wall Street Journal story that examines the practice of randomly tracking license plates -- a process made possible by merging video cameras, databases and cheap data storage.

Katz-Lacabe filed a California Public Records Act request for his own license plate surveillance records. They had been taken by the San Leandro Police Department, which has a camera-equipped car dedicated to capturing plate numbers (see photo above).

He told the Journal that SLPD had 100 records of his two vehicles -- each stamped with a time and date -- including one snapshot of him and his girls in his own driveway.

Katz-Lacabe told Patch that he understands that police routinely call in suspicious plates to find out if the vehicle may be connected with a crime.

But he offered Patch two main objections to computer-based plate surveillance:

  1. that it ropes in everyone, the vast majority of whom are innocent citizens under no suspicion;
  2. and that, in the case of San Leandro at least, the information is being stored indefinitely.

To Katz-Lacabe, an elected school board member who makes his living as a computer security professional, indefinitely storing information about law-abiding citizens puts too much power in the hands of police.

"When you have such a rich database of information it's too tempting not to find other uses for it (than crime solving)," Katz-Lacabe told Patch. For instance, police could create a movement profile: "Are you going to an abortion clinic? Are you going to a medical marijuana dispensary?"

San Leandro Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli defended the department's use of the automated tracking technology to the Journal.

She told the Journal reporters a success story: when a homicide suspect from Las Vegas drove through our city, the auto-tracker spotted the car, police gave chase and made an arrest.

She also told the Journal reporters why SLPD was keeping a permanent record of the plate data.

"It's irresponsible if you have something that could solve a crime in the future, and you've dumped it," Spagnoli is quoted as saying.

License Plates Just One Aspect

The Journal story uses license plate surveillance as a case in point of the ever-expanding ability of law enforcement to keep track of us.

"Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities," the Journal reporters wrote based on their survey of techniques.

The reporters quoted an officer at the West Point Military Academy who studies tracking technologies. The officer wondered aloud what the Soviet Union would have done with today's tools.

"We don't have a police state," the officer told the Journal, "but we have the technology."

Click here to read the Journal story.

What do you think about license plate tracking technology? Is it a case where, if you got nothing to hide, why worry? Or is this tempting law enforcement to profile innocent citizens? Should San Leandro keep records indefinitely?

David October 01, 2012 at 10:36 PM
In NYC: http://www.city-journal.org/2012/eon1001hm.html "public housing has accounted for nearly 20 percent of all shootings in the city, 10 percent of felony assaults, and 11 percent of rapes, though less than 5 percent of city residents live in the projects..." Where should the police operate? where there's no crime?
Fred Eiger October 09, 2012 at 01:37 AM
And some people should take more pride in their front yards. What a pig sty!!!!
Ernesto October 09, 2012 at 05:38 PM
There is nothing wrong with video taping a public gathering at city hall. In fact, several cities have cameras there. It is another thing to record my or your activities and store them for possible future use in "solving a crime". That is Big Brother stuff, and quite scary. What San Leandro Bytes is doing is right and legitimate.
Marga Lacabe November 03, 2012 at 04:20 PM
Mike was on the TV news a couple of nights ago discussing license plate cameras. Take a look: http://cbsloc.al/WjuEp7
Craig Williams November 03, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Who's been doing his press work to get the TV and the WSJ coverage? If I'm not mistaken he said the surveilance was OK but they shouldn't keep the photos indefinetely. I wonder why Homeland Security gets so much money in the first place. Some call it "probability neglect." Based on if and its a big IF the Times Square attempted terrorist bomb HAD been successful , we would need 1600 of them a year to justify their current budget according to Homeland Security expert John Mueller. The TV story also dwelled on a photo of Mike that was not very flattering.


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