Snooping spree

New homeland security system will record shoppers’ license plates at Arden Fair

Car thieves and other crooks ought to avoid Arden Fair mall from now on. Drivers who think it’s none of the government’s business where they shop might think twice as well.

Arden Fair is getting ready to launch its PlateScan system to record the license-plate numbers of cars in mall parking lots and then check the numbers against police databases.

The infrared-equipped, license-reading cameras, which will be mounted on trucks that patrol the lot, check license-plate numbers against a police “hot list” of stolen vehicles. If it gets a hit, the computer alerts mall security, which can then contact the police.

The system was supposed to be in place last month, but Steve Reed, head of mall security, said he’s still waiting for police brass and the U.S. Department of Justice to sign off on the plan. “I hope it will be in the next month,” Reed explained.

The DOJ has to approve the plan because the mall is using a grant it got from the Department of Homeland Security, part of millions of dollars the agency has kicked down to local governments and private businesses for new surveillance systems.

Speaking of which, “This is not Big Brother. I just want the mall to be a safe place for our shoppers,” Reed, a former Sacramento police officer, told SN&R.

The license-plate readers may also be able to flag other vehicles, as in the case of a license plate belonging to someone with an outstanding warrant, but some of those details haven’t been worked out yet, according to Reed.

Now, if you think this all seems a bit intrusive, you ought not to worry, according to the Sacramento Police Department.

“There really aren’t any privacy issues,” said Sacramento Police Lt. Michelle Lazark. “If I stand out in a parking lot and look at a license plate, there are no Fourth Amendment issues.” The Fourth Amendment is the one that protects you against unreasonable search and seizure.

But checking out a suspicious vehicle is not the same as harvesting thousands of license-plate numbers a day, said Nicole Ozer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“It’s one thing for a police officer with probable cause to punch in a license-plate number. It’s another to be digitally recording everyone’s information.” She worries the Arden Fair program is another small step toward a larger surveillance society. Sifting through masses of license-plate numbers is not much different than the government snooping through masses of phones records, Ozer said.

“It’s an example of what’s happening nationwide. There’s this dragnet used to gather all this information on innocent people, and then you justify it because you might get a couple of hits.”

The mall, like all private businesses, has a right to install its own security system and policies within reason. “The Constitution doesn’t stop when you get to private property,” Ozer said.

Steve Reed insists that the information is not going to be stored and pored over by police, and the plate numbers will be dumped from the computers after about a month.

But critics of the plan are not assured. They worry there is little oversight of the program and few guarantees about how the information will and won’t be used. Because the police department is involved, the local chapter of the ACLU wants to know what the exact agreement is between the police and the mall and wants the Sacramento City Council to review the arrangement.

“If there’s a concern, and I think there clearly is, the city council has a responsibility to review this program and not just accept what the police are saying,” said James Updegraff, president of the Sacramento chapter of the ACLU.

Lazark, the police spokeswoman, said there’s nothing for the council, or the public, to review. “There’s no memorandum of understanding or anything like that. It’s private property. It’s their baby.”

The local ACLU also wants more details about the police department’s proposed program to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for surveillance. The remote control glider, equipped with a video camera, was planned to provide extra intelligence at crime scenes, inspect levees for signs of trouble, even look for missing people.

Unfortunately for the fans of the new silent-but-nosy technology, the drone has been grounded for the time being, owing to the city’s current budget crisis. “Frankly, it will be years before police departments can use this kind of technology,” police Capt. James Maccoun explained. Still, it’s something to look forward to.