SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Every day in the nation’s most populous state, millions of drivers are tracked as they pull out of their driveways and parking garages. Mounted on streetlights, overpasses and police cars, a spider web of high-speed cameras indiscriminately snap shots of license plates as Californians go to work and run errands.
Supporters view the technology as an evolutionary law enforcement advancement similar to radar speed guns and computers in squad cars. Agencies in cities like Los Angeles have been using the cameras for over a decade.
But in 2015, after civil liberties groups raised privacy concerns, California passed regulations and requirements on agencies’ use of the surveillance tool referred to as automated license plate readers. Public agencies are supposed to hold open meetings before starting plate reader programs and are barred from sharing or selling the recovered data with non-public entities.
Now those same civil liberties groups have initiated a state audit into whether California law enforcement groups are playing by the privacy rules.
“When all of us leave the Capitol today, get in our cars to go home, we will be tracked,” Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maass told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Whether you believe license plate readers are a useful public safety tool or not, one must recognize the need to ensure that law enforcement is acting as responsible stewards of our confidential locational data.”
After an hour-long debate featuring testimony from EFF, the American Civil Liberties Union and several law enforcement groups, a legislative committee approved a sweeping inquiry into law enforcement’s use of license plate readers.
Proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener, the audit will focus on five agencies in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno. Wiener says he’s not looking to ban the use of the technology, but wants to follow up on reports that license plate data is being shared and being given to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“Indeed, there are already known examples of this technology being used to track people in our immigrant communities, and it is known that millions of these data points have been shared in the past with ICE,” Wiener testified.
Wiener was referring to documents uncovered by the ACLU through a public records request showing that ICE has access to license plate data maintained by a company called Vigilant Solutions. According to the ACLU, over 80 law enforcement agencies nationwide have agreed to share information with ICE.
The law enforcement agencies selected for the audit defended their use of the technology, calling it a useful investigative tool that can help track down stolen cars and identify both suspects and witnesses at busy crime scenes.
Fresno Police Sgt. Steve Casto says his department has been using license plate readers for about a decade, purging data unrelated to investigations after one year. Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Dan Gomez said the LAPD implemented the technology in 2006 and protects the data by not storing them to a cloud.
“We feel comfortable in the process and the manner in which we’ve done it,” Gomez said.
The ACLU and EFF pushed for the audit after investigations found security flaws with law enforcement cameras, and instances of data being shared. The groups suspect that at least 170 California law enforcement agencies use the popular technology.
EFF is currently fighting a public records lawsuit against the LAPD pertaining to its use of the technology. Gomez said his agency could be limited in its cooperation with the audit because of the pending litigation.
State Auditor Elaine Howle estimated the audit could be completed in about seven months depending on how many additional audits are approved by lawmakers this summer. She says her department will “drill down” and find out if the five agencies are abiding by the 2015 law.
“Are they holding those public hearings when necessary? Are they sharing public information? Do they have proper protocols in place to protect the data, and if they do, are they following those protocols?” Howle said.
Wiener closed the hearing by reiterating his goal is not to outlaw license plate readers.
“The purpose of this audit is not to point fingers; it is to just make sure that the law is being followed, that the procedures are correct and if there are issues, that we can help local jurisdictions comply or if we need to improve the law we can do that,” he said.