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When Transit Agencies Spy on Riders

For months, the Bay Area’s transit agency sent license plate information to federal immigration authorities, violating its own “sanctuary” policy.
A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train makes its way along the tracks in Oakland, California.
A Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train makes its way along the tracks in Oakland, California.Robert Galbraith/Reuters

In 2015, workers installed a pair of cameras overlooking a parking lot in Oakland’s MacArthur Station. It’s the largest station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, and a major commuter hub. The cameras were fitted with automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology, part of a new generation of powerful surveillance tools used by law enforcement nationwide.

The cameras can scan more than a thousand license plates per minute and can be fixed nearly anywhere: on top of police cars, street lamps, bridges, street signs, malls, and even inside fake cacti. When a motorist drives by, the system runs the license plate through a “hot list” of plates that may be relevant to ongoing criminal investigations. If there’s a match, the system alerts law enforcement.