Now entering Tiburon. Please get your license plates ready for their close-up

If you're a thief with a car, you may want to steer clear of Tiburon, Calif. As tantalizing a target as Tiburon may be -- its median home price is $2.62 million, and Forbes ranks it as the 26th-wealthiest zip code -- the Bay Area enclave may become the first U.S. city to install cameras to photograph the license plates of every car that enters and leaves town.

"I think it makes the community safe," Michael Cronin, Tiburon's police chief, said Wednesday, after the Town Council voted 4-0 to go ahead with the surveillance program, slated to go live within six months, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But the exclusive waterfront hamlet 17 miles north of San Francisco could set a dangerous precedent, privacy experts warn.

A Threat to Privacy?

Other, bigger cities, including London, have cameras that photograph many license plates. But experts believe Tiburon to be the first city seeking to capture each and every plate.

"Installing systems like this sends a bad message for the rest of the country," says Harley Geiger, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy watchdog in Washington, D.C. "Our society is very quietly sinking into a situation in which every time we step out of our homes, our bodies and our property are being scrutinized by sophisticated machines on behalf of law enforcement and commercial interests. I doubt this is the world we want to live in. Tiburon is bringing us closer to this."

Tiburon's town council argues that nobody can have "a reasonable expectation of privacy" while driving down a public street. Not that the town of 8,800 itself is a high-crime zone. Last year, residents reported 99 thefts, including 20 burglaries and two stolen cars. Losses totaled $200,000, down from $500,000 in 2007.

But an apparent catalyst for the cameras came in September, when Joan Rosenthal, 75, was fatally shot in the city's first homicide in 10 years. The crime remains unsolved. "No one can say for certain whether the system will help capture criminals, but it is likely to provide a very valuable tool to develop leads for solving crime," notes a city information sheet on the program.

Taking Photos

The snapshots of the rear of vehicles are expected to yield license-plate numbers, and possibly cars' colors and makes: data that officers can reference against databases of stolen and wanted cars. And detectives working on a crime case will be able to comb through the records for leads on possible suspects, the Chronicle reported. The police department plans to keep the license-plate data for 30 days before erasing it.

The city says there will be no record of the cars' occupants, and that the vehicle information will not be available to the public and only would be released by a court order or subpoena. But Geiger says he sees potential for abuse. "They could change their 30-day retention period very quickly, simply by changing their policy. There is nothing in the law that stops them from keeping the data for 90 days, or ever longer, or even from sharing it with other law enforcement agencies."

Geographically, Tiburon is a perfect candidate for such a surveillance program. Situated on a the peninsula with postcard views of San Francisco, Tiburon can be reached only by two roads. (The neighboring city of Belvedere is even more exclusive.) At a cost of between $135,000 to $200,000, the city is to install six cameras on the feeder streets Tiburon Boulevard and Paradise Drive.

"A Minimal Privacy Impact"

Tiburon Councilman Jeff Slavitz, a computer consultant, told the Chronicle he believes the public-safety benefits outweigh the privacy concerns. "This has a very minimal privacy impact, when you compare it to cameras in airports, and everywhere else, that actually take pictures of your face," Slavitz says.

But Geiger says he's puzzled that a town with such a low crime rate would make such a move. "To invade the privacy of every person coming in and out of the city is, I think, an over-the-top effort to try to maximize security," he says.

No word yet on what Tiburon plans to do about bandits who enter the town on foot or on bicycles.
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