Dozens of California police agencies still share automatic license plate reader (ALPR) data with out-of-state authorities without a warrant, the police said. The Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed this. This happens despite advice issued by state Attorney General Rob Bonta last year.
Clarifying a state law that limits state public agencies to sharing ALPR data only with other public agencies, Bonta's guidance emphasized that “what is important” is the definition of “public agency.” in the law “does not include out-of-state or federal law enforcement agencies.” “.
Bonta's advice came after the EFF discovered that more than 70 California law enforcement agencies were sharing ALPR data with police officers in other states, including anti-abortion states. After Bonta clarified the statute, about half of those agencies told the EFF that they had updated their practices to comply with Bonta's reading of the law. However, some States have not yet been able to verify that this practice has ended.
In a letter According to Bonta, the EFF praised the guidelines as protecting the privacy of Californians, but also reported more than 30 police agencies that either expressly rejected Bonta's guidelines or refused to confirm that they had stopped sharing information. data with authorities outside the State. EFF attorney Jennifer Pinsof told Ars that it's likely other agencies won't comply either, such as agencies that the EFF never contacted or that recently acquired ALPR technology.
“We believe it is very likely that other state agencies are not following the law,” the EFF letter said.
The EFF hopes that making Bonta aware of the current noncompliance will end the sharing of highly sensitive location data with police departments in states that don't offer as much privacy protection as California. If Bonta “takes the initiative” in enforcing the law, Pinsof said police might be more willing to consider privacy risks, since Bonta can “communicate more easily with the law enforcement community.” the law” as privacy advocates.
However, even Bonta could have difficulty, as some agencies “have taken over,” Pinsof said.
Many state police agencies simply disagree with Bonta's interpretation of the law, which they say allows ALPR data to be shared with police in other states. In a November letterA lawyer representing the California State Sheriffs' Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Peace Officers' Association urged Bonta to “reconsider” his position that the law “prohibits sharing ALPR data with government entities outside the State for legitimate law enforcement purposes. purposes.”
The officers argued that sharing ALPR data with law enforcement officers in other states contributes “to the arrest and prosecution of child abductors, drug traffickers, human traffickers, extremist hate groups and other transstate criminal enterprises.”
They told Bonta that the law “was not designed to prevent law enforcement from sharing ALPR data outside of California, where the information could be used to intercede with criminal offenders moving from one location to another.” State to State.” According to them, cooperation between state authorities is “absolutely imperative for effective policing”.
Here's where the ambiguity lies, cops say. The law defines public agency as “the State, any city, county, or city and county, or any agency or political subdivision of the State or of a city, county, or city and county, including, but not limited to limited to, a law enforcement agency. agency.” According to cops, because the law does not “specifically refer to the State of California” or “this State,” it could refer to agencies in any state.
“If the legislation referred to 'a State' rather than 'the State,' there would be no debate about prohibiting sharing,” the letter from the police associations said. “We see no reason to interpret such a limitation in legislation based on the word 'the' rather than 'a'.”
The police associations also reminded Bonta that the California Legislature was considering passing a bill that would have explicitly “prohibited the out-of-state sharing of ALPR information” with states interfering with “the right to seek abortion services” but “rejected” it. They told Bonta that “Parliament’s refusal to adopt a position consistent with the position” he “advances is troubling.”
The EFF said California police can still share ALPR data with out-of-state police in situations permitted by law, such as when out-of-state cops have a “warrant.” to obtain ALPR information based on probable cause and particularity”. Instead, the EFF alleged that cops are “sharing nets via commercial cloud storage systems” without a warrant, which could violate Californians' privacy rights, as well as their First and Fourth Amendment rights. .
The EFF has urged Bonta to reject the police associations' “cranky interpretation” of the statute, but it is unclear whether Bonta will ever respond. Pinsof told Ars that Bonta did not respond directly to the EFF's initial inquiry, but instructions he later issued seemed to suggest he understood the EFF's message.
The police associations and Bonta's office did not respond to Ars' request for comment.