Got a Red Light Ticket? Chances are California Cops Still Have the Photo

February 14, 2020

Got a Red Light Ticket? Chances are California Cops Still Have the Photo - (Sacramento Bee - Feb 14)

Four California law enforcement agencies have accumulated a massive amount of license plate images in their databases with the vast majority of the photos not pertaining to any criminal investigation, according to a state audit released on Thursday.

The report said the Fresno Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Marin County Sheriff’s Office and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office — have failed to fully implement 2016 privacy regulations concerning the use of automated license plate readers and may be exposing drivers to data breaches.

The LAPD, according to the report from the California State Auditor’s Office, has 320 million images stored, yet only 400,000 of those images pertained to any investigation.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, requested the audit and, in a statement Thursday, said the findings were “deeply disturbing and confirm our worst fears about the misuse of this data.”

The data “should be used only in narrow circumstances. What we’ve learned today is that many law enforcement agencies are violating state law, are retaining personal data for lengthy periods of time, and are disseminating this personal data broadly,” Wiener said.

The report found that the Fresno, Marin and Sacramento agencies use cloud storage to store the license plate data, which in the case of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office also includes names, addresses, dates of birth and criminal charges.

None of the three agencies could demonstrate to auditors that their privacy standards complied with FBI guidelines, the report said.

“Moreover, none of the contracts these three agencies have with their cloud storage vendors include all necessary data security safeguards. Thus, the agencies lack guarantees that the cloud vendor will provide appropriate protection of their data,” the audit said.

The report found that Fresno police hold onto license plate image data for one year, while the Sacramento agency holds it for two years.

The agencies reviewed “have few safeguards” against misuse of automated license plate reader data, the audit found, and “the agencies have left their systems open to abuse by neglecting to institute sufficient oversight.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, in a response to the audit, said that he disagrees with some of the characterizations made in the report.

“As the Sheriff of Sacramento County, I take seriously the protection of our citizens, including their personal privacy,” Jones said. “Within our role as guardians of the data we collect, my staff works diligently to develop and consistently apply security protocols that maintain the integrity of our systems.”

The report recommends that the Legislature pass a bill to require the state Department of Justice to draft a license plate reader policy template that local law enforcement agencies can use.

The report also recommends that the state establish a maximum retention period for license plate images and specify how frequently automated license plate reader system use must be audited.

That legislation is coming, Wiener said in a statement.

“This state of affairs is totally unacceptable, and I’m drafting legislation to protect people’s privacy and to put an end to these privacy violations.”