SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Over the last decade, hundreds of law enforcement employees have undergone investigation for abusing a police database that contains personal information about anyone with a California driver’s license – but until recently, these abuses have remained largely unreported.
Fortunately for Californians who enjoy privacy, the trend of lax oversight of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunication System is reversing: regulators are clamping down and agencies are turning in bad employees.
According to data released Thursday by the California Department of Justice, 98 percent of the agencies using the system have submitted compliance and misuse reports so far in 2018.
The digital privacy and free speech group that for years pressured the DOJ to increase oversight of the system says the data is good news.
“The California Attorney General is finally taking police database abuse seriously,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Aaron Mackey in a statement. “It’s great that we will finally have good aggregate data on misuse.”
The system is a critical law enforcement tool that allows users to access the personal information of anyone in California with a criminal record or a driver’s license. Public safety employees from over 1,000 agencies have accessed the system 260 million times this year alone. The decades-old system links criminal justice and personal data to assist in police investigations.
But the system can be easily abused and manipulated. Many abuses of the popular confidential network are deemed trivial, but a small percentage of investigations result in disciplinary actions or firings.
An officer in 2010 used the system to spy on his estranged wife’s boyfriends, resulting in him pleading no contest to criminal charges. Others were investigated for allegedly spying on dates they had lined up on online dating sites like eHarmony and Tinder.
More serious incidents include a Los Angeles police officer who resigned after allegations that he used the database to snoop on witnesses in a murder trial.
According to state data, 2017 saw 143 instances of system abuse. Los Angeles, Sacramento and Kings Counties reported the most violations with a combined 58. Statewide last year, 18 employees were suspended and 22 quit or were fired for abusing the database.
Maria Cranston of the DOJ says the state is making it clear to its users that misuse of the system will no longer be tolerated and agencies that don’t submit compliance reports will face consequences.
“DOJ considers misuse reporting very important,” Cranston said Thursday at an oversight meeting.
She assured the oversight committee made up of law enforcement leaders that the infractions aren’t “always blatant or malicious.”
So far in 2018, only four agencies haven’t submitted compliance reports and they are all federal agencies. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, FBI and Department of Homeland Security offices are using the system but have yet to submit reporting.
The oversight committee said it will ramp up efforts to reach the four offices located in San Jose, Hayward and San Diego and obtain the reports.
California will continue to increase oversight of the system, making reporting mandatory even if no misuse is expected or has occurred. Agencies that ignore quarterly reports will be posted on a DOJ website and will face possible sanctions or fines.
The San Francisco-based EFF hopes the more stringent rules will force each agency into compliance and allow the DOJ to punish public employees caught invading Californians’ privacy.
“But this should only be the first step. We will be watching closely to see if the attorney general actually follows through on his threats to sanction agencies who sweep [system] abuse under the carpet,” EFF investigative researcher Dave Maass said in a statement.