Bay Area transit system approves new surveillance-oversight policy

Rapid transit station empty at night.
Enlarge/ MacArthur BART station in Oakland, as seen in 2006.

On Thursday, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board of Directors voted to approve a new policy that requires that it be notified if the local police department wishes to acquire new surveillance equipment.

BART is one of the largest mass transit agencies in northern California, with a system that stretches from the San Francisco International Airport, through San Francisco itself, across to Oakland, north to Antioch and south to Fremont—adjacent to Silicon Valley. This new policy puts it in line with a number of other regional cities that impose community oversight on the acquisition and use of surveillance technology. It is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, such policies for a transportation agency in the nation.

Santa Clara County, in addition to the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Davis, and most recently, Palo Alto, have also passed similar measures.

The new BART policy was approved just one day after the Bay Area News Group reported that BART police had been using license plate readers at the parking garage at MacArthur station in Oakland for several months beginning in January 2017. The data collected was, in turn, shared with a “fusion center” of federal law enforcement data known as the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.

Somehow, the MacArthur license plate reader (LPR) system was installed months after the Board had voted in 2016 to delay installation of the high-speed scanners until a policy for their use could be drafted.

Numerous Bay Area cities are concerned about the sharing of data collected by local law enforcement with federal immigration agencies. California, after all, is a “sanctuary state,” under a recent state law that took effect in January, which forbids local police from enforcing federal immigration law or aiding in deportations unless that person has been convicted of one of hundreds of approved crimes.

A tricky balance

The agency has been under renewed pressure to expand surveillance in the wake of a July 2018 stabbing death of a woman named Nia Wilson, also at the MacArthur BART station.

By June 2017, every car on all the trains in the fleet were equipped with in-car video monitoring. That move only took place after the San Francisco Chronicle revealed in February 2016 that 77 percent of the in-car cameras were decoys or non-functional.

Local civil liberties groups applauded the new policy.

“Today’s decision will help BART staff and law enforcement officials begin to earn back the community’s trust by asking us for feedback about how they navigate the city,” Sameena Usman, of the Council on American Islamic Relations in San Francisco, which lobbied for the policy, said in a Thursday statement.

“Further, the passage of this ordinance will empower community members to have a say in the spaces they occupy—which will increase public safety in and of itself.”

Meanwhile, Shahid Buttar, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that, while his group supports the policy overall, it’s not flawless.

“It includes a potentially dangerous exception for law enforcement to conduct a ‘trial’ period use of unapproved spy tech for up to 60 days at a single station,” he wrote on Friday.

“We hope the limited duration for a trial suggests that it will not become a back door to permanence. The BART Board will need to actively ensure that potential trials remain truly temporary.”