Senator Wiener Introduces License Plate Privacy Act to Prevent Sensitive Personal Data from Being Misused by Law Enforcement

January 14, 2021

Sacramento - Today Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 210, the License Plate Privacy Act, which will prevent sensitive Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data from being misused by law enforcement. The bill will be in print this evening and text of the legislation is available upon request. SB 210 requires that ALPR data – which in addition to license plate number, includes personal data like birth date and name – be deleted within 24 hours after a law enforcement agency determines that the license plate is not a match for a vehicle involved in criminal activity. The License Plate Privacy Act would require the use of this data to be audited annually in order to ensure the data is being used appropriately. 

For a number of years, law enforcement agencies in California and elsewhere have used ALPR to collect data consisting of photographs of license plates, with associated information. The data can be used for parking enforcement or tracking illegal activity, such as vehicle theft and other crimes involving vehicles. While this data has a legitimate use in criminal investigations, it can also be abused. Sadly, many law enforcement agencies are currently abusing it by retaining ALPR data that has no connection to crime, retaining that data for lengthy or indefinite periods of time, and disseminating that data either directly or via private vendors. The result is massive surveillance and data collection about residents, and broad dissemination of that data.

For example, despite stating they wouldn’t, the Long Beach and Pasadena police departments gave ALPR data to the Immigration Customs and Enforcement Agency (ICE). California is a sanctuary state, meaning that, by law, it does not cooperate with ICE. ICE has carried out many thousands of immigrant deportations, raids on facilities and businesses that employ or house immigrants, and overseen inhumane immigrant detention camps and family separation policies. Yet, California law enforcement agencies are providing ALPR data to ICE. In addition, law enforcement agencies have misused ALPR data by sending it to private entities without vetting them, and by allowing officers or other employees to use the data in an unregulated manner. 

Senator Wiener introduced this legislation following an audit he commissioned in 2019 to determine how ALPR data was being used in California. In the audit — which focused on a small number of sample agencies — the State Auditor found that “[t]hree agencies share their [ALPR] images with hundreds of entities across the U.S. but could not provide evidence that they had determined whether those entities have a right or a need to access the images.” The audit also found that law enforcement agencies were retaining and storing massive amounts of ALPR data, of no practical relevance for criminal investigations, for an undetermined and unregulated amount of time. Some agencies were found to have maintained this data for upwards of five years, even when it was unrelated to any criminal activity or investigation. Additionally, there are very few regulations regarding who can make an account to access ALPR data, leading to more opportunities for abuse.

The audit also found that some law enforcement agencies had failed to adopt legally required ALPR privacy protection policies and that others adopted policies and then proceeded to ignore them.

The License Plate Privacy Act is sponsored by Media Alliance and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“ALPR data should only be retained when it is relevant to a criminal investigation,” said Senator Wiener. “It’s troubling, to say the least, that so many California law enforcement agencies are harvesting massive amounts of ALPR data, retaining that data for no reason, and recklessly distributing it to other agencies around the country, including ICE. It’s even more disturbing that private vendors frequently have access to this personal information. ALPR data is truly the Wild West in California, and this legislation will bring much-needed privacy protections.”

“Law enforcement agencies, with little oversight or regard for people's civil liberties or privacy, have for years used automated license plate readers, which track and record the movements of millions of ordinary people—most of whom are not connected to a crime,” said Hayley Tsukayama, Legislative Activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “These agencies collect far too much data, store it for far too long, and share it far too broadly with agencies that have no articulated need to access our data. Last year, the State Auditor confirmed our worst fears, finding that agencies were violating even the most basic requirements under state law. It's time for the legislature to act on the auditor's recommendations to protect our immigrant communities, promote racial justice, and strengthen the privacy protections guaranteed to all Californians under the state constitution”

"With over 99.7% of the billions of license plate scans collected in the state never connected with any criminal activity, the retention of months and years of Californians' travel patterns, and the sharing of that data with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the nation, must end,” said Tracy Rosenberg, Advocacy Director at Oakland Privacy. “A series of scandals from the misidentification of Denise Green's license plate which resulted in a violent traffic stop, to the accidental sharing of scans with ICE by two Southern California police departments in Long Beach and Pasadena, have shown the costs of unfettered bulk collection of billions of travel points with little regulation. It is time for the Legislature to step up and refocus this program. We welcome Senator Weiner's proposed legislation."