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BART sent license plate surveillance pics to database accessible to ICE, defying 'sanctuary' policy

Employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system sent tens of thousands of license plate surveillance photos to a government data-sharing organization, defying instructions from the board of directors. (Image source: YouTube screencap)

Bay Area Rapid Transit sent pictures showing passengers' license plate numbers to a federal database accessible to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency last year, defying their board's unanimous decision not to use the surveillance technology.

Privacy and immigration advocates in Oakland, California, discovered the prohibited information-sharing through an open records request, leading to the cameras being immediately removed.

What happened?

Activist Mike Katz-Lacabe of the group Oakland Privacy stumbled on the surveillance evidence while investigating data he received from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. NCRIC works with federal, state and local public safety agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security — which overseas ICE.

Katz-Lacabe discovered that BART sent more than 57,000 snaps of license plates to NCRIC from January through November 2017. In June last year, BART's board of directors, adopted a Safe Transit Policy, which is a "sanctuary" policy declaring in part:

"No employee of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District shall use any District funds or resources to assist in the law enforcement of federal immigration law or the gather or disseminate information regarding release status of individuals or any other such personal information unless such assistance is required by federal or state statute, regulation or court decision."

BART board director Bevan Dufty told KPIX-TV they had no idea the license plate information was being transmitted to the database until the media reported it.

"It's disappointing for me because our values have been around sanctuary and safe transit for individuals," Dufty said. "They ignored a unanimous board vote not to do that and they did it anyway."

BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost issued a statement with the explanation that "at some point and without [the BART police department's] knowledge, the cameras were accidently activated and began sending data to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. It's unclear when exactly this happened."

Trost added that once the BPD became aware that the surveillance system was operating, Police Chief Carlos Rojas "ordered that it be immediately powered off and completely uninstalled."

Anything else?

According to KTVU-TV, the American Civil Liberties Union is urging BART to issue strict policies on how surveillance can be administered moving forward, as the transit system struggles with how to manage security after several violent attacks on riders in the past few years.

Oakland Privacy member Brian Hofer slammed BART for not having more oversight of their monitoring system to assure the safety of illegal immigrants.

"BART cannot guarantee that those 57,000 people were not ever at risk," he said. "BART cannot guarantee that no one was deported because of the information they shared."

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