SACRAMENTO, Calif. (March 17, 2022) – A bill introduced in the California Assembly would explicitly authorize police to share automatic license plate reader (ALPR) data with the feds.
Assm. James Ramos (D) introduced Assembly Bill 2192 (AB2192) on Feb. 16. Under the current law, law enforcement agencies can retain ALPR data for only 60 days unless it is being used as evidence in the investigation of a felony. Existing law also prohibits a public agency, as defined, from selling, sharing, or transferring ALPR information except to another public agency, and only as otherwise permitted by law.
The definition of a public agency is key to understanding AB2192. Under current law, “public agency” means the state, any city, county, or city and county, or any agency or political subdivision of the state or a city, county, or city and county, including, but not limited to, a law enforcement agency.”
This would appear to exclude federal agencies and out-of-state agencies, meaning sharing with them is illegal for any purpose. But according to Tracy Rosenberg and Medial Alliance, California law enforcement agencies have continued to blithely share ALPR scans with hundreds if not thousands of agencies, including out-of-state agencies and the feds.
The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently filed suit in state court (Lagleva v Marin County Sheriff). They want to test that language and its meaning by attempting to force a judge to read the definition of a public agency in current law and state definitively what it means.
That’s where AB2192 comes in. The proposed law would prohibit a public agency from “selling, sharing, or transferring ALPR information to a law enforcement agency of the federal government or another state unless the ALPR information is being sold, shared, or transferred to locate a vehicle or person reasonably suspected of being involved in the commission of a public offense, and only as otherwise permitted by law.”
This sounds like a limitation on data sharing, but in effect, AB2192 would change the definition of a public agency to explicitly moot the current definition on trial and explicitly authorize the sharing with federal and out-of-state agencies that has been going on for the past 6 years.
Rosenberg said the bill was introduced on behalf of law enforcement interests because they are afraid they will lose the case and the judge will rule no sharing with the feds and out-of-state agencies.
“Whether the lawsuit will be successful or not, I don’t know. Law enforcement can certainly claim precedent as they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time. But we do not want to explicitly authorize
federal and out of state sharing under California law.”
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), tracks the location of millions of vehicles through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.
Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).
Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.
Private companies contribute to the proliferation of ALPR databases. In late 2019, Rekor Systems announced that they had launched the Rekor Public Safety Network (RPSN) which gives law enforcement real-time access to license plates.
“Any state or local law enforcement agency participating in the RPSN will be able to access real-time data from any part of the network at no cost. The Company is initially launching the network by aggregating vehicle data from customers in over 30 states. With thousands of automatic license plate reading cameras currently in service that capture approximately 150 million plate reads per month, the network is expected to be live by the first quarter of 2020.”
Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.
With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, laws banning or even restricting ALPR use are essential. As more states pass such laws, the end result becomes more clear. No data equals no federal license plate tracking program.
Passage of AB2192 would facilitate federal plans to continue location tracking and the expansion of its facial recognition program. The less data that states make available to the federal government, the less ability it has to track people in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
AB2192 was referred to the Assembly Transportation Committee. They can kill the bill by voting it down by a majority vote.
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