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California Police Department May Be Sharing License Plate Data

A surveillance tool shares local data with out-of-state agencies — a practice among many police departments and one that some lawyers, privacy advocates and legislators say is illegal.

The day the El Cajon Police Department turned on dozens of cameras that scan the license plates of passing vehicles, the new system started getting hits. The cameras, affixed to light and traffic poles, were turned on at the end of July. In less than a month, they led to the recovery of about a dozen stolen cars and multiple arrests, police officials said.

But the new surveillance tool also shares local data with out-of-state agencies — a too-common practice among many law enforcement departments across the state and one that some lawyers, privacy advocates and legislators say is illegal.

The issue exposes the ongoing challenge of bringing meaningful oversight to the technologies police say help them solve crimes. In May, civil rights organizations sent letters to more than 70 police departments, warning them that sharing the data with other states violates a 2015 state law.

El Cajon’s system wasn’t up and running when the letters were sent out.

“El Cajon is using this system to combat vehicle-related crime, and to keep our communities safer,” said police Lt. Jeremiah Larson. “We are sharing the information for those purposes as well. … We always have the ability to turn it off immediately if we discover or suspect another agency to be using the information in a way that would violate (California) law.”

Privacy advocates have long sounded the alarm when surveillance tools are improperly used or abused. Critics of license plate readers are quick to argue that most of the data collected — information that can reveal where people shop, worship or protest — isn’t used for crime fighting.

In fewer than 30 days, El Cajon’s system scanned more than 12 million license plates, police officials said. Less than 1 percent of those scans — about 3,000 — activated a crime alert. Advocates assert that even when rules govern how the tools should be used, law enforcement agencies don’t always follow them.

“License plate data is very revealing about how we live our lives,” said Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization. “Did we go to work late? Did we go to a church or a bar? Did we go to a protest? Did we go to a clinic and get medical care that we’d rather keep private? What we want California police to do is to be the data sanctuary that California law requires them to be.”

License plate readers use cameras to scan the plates of passing vehicles, noting when and where they were seen, and then uses that data to create searchable databases. The technology regularly runs the information it collects against a variety of other law enforcement databases — everything from missing-person lists to stolen-car rosters — creating real-time alerts if a wanted vehicle is detected. The city can also build its own watch lists as crimes and other incidents occur.

El Cajon City Council members approved use of the technology in March. The three-year pilot program, which includes 40 cameras, will cost $300,000. The service is provided by Flock, one of the nation’s largest license plate reader providers.

The department did not disclose where the cameras are located, but Larson said they were placed at most high-traffic intersections. Currently, 37 are operational.

According to the department’s website, data collected is kept for 30 days before anything that’s not related to an active investigation is purged. Police officials must be trained to use the system before they access it for official law enforcement business, according to the department’s policy. The system can’t be used for immigration enforcement, traffic enforcement, harassment or intimidation, the department’s policy says. As required by law, the agency plans to keep a log of all who access the system and to perform regular audits.

El Cajon joins other Southern California municipalities that have installed license plate readers in their communities including Chula Vista, Carlsbad, Oceanside and soon San Diego.

Since the department’s system went live, police officials have sent out a half a dozen news releases highlighting how the cameras have assisted officers.

“The El Cajon Police Department will continue to use every tool available to us to hold criminals accountable who victimize our community,” police Chief Mike Moulton stated in a news release last week. “If you drive a stolen vehicle in the City of El Cajon, we will locate you, arrest you, and put you in jail.”

Although the data is owned by the department, the agency can grant access to other departments that work with Flock. That network includes thousands of agencies across the country. El Cajon is currently sharing data with dozens of agencies, including the Houston Police Department in Texas.

At least one other San Diego County agency — the Escondido Police Department — was found to be sharing data with out-of-state agencies when civil rights organizations took their statewide inventory in May. It’s a practice that lawyers, privacy advocates and the co-author of the 2015 bill in question say is illegal.

In 2015, the state passed Senate Bill 34, the Automated License Plate Recognition Act, which makes it illegal to share collected data across state lines.

“SB 34 places a number of limits on (license) plate data, which California’s Legislature can impose on California governments but cannot impose in the other 49 states,” said Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And therefore, in order to make sure that this plate data stays subject to the privacy rules created by the California Legislature, they chose wisely to keep that data in California.”

© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.