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California Police Share License Plate Data with ICE

Police in Pasadena and Long Beach broke their vows to not share data with ICE. However, the departments released vehicle license plate information to the agency.

by Suhauna Hussain, Johana Bhuiyan, Los Angeles Times / December 21, 2020
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(TNS) — When the city of Pasadena approved the police department's request to purchase three new automatic license plate readers, Commander Jason Clawson promised the city's public safety committee the department wouldn't share any data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Robust policies and procedures are in place to prevent the system and the information it gathers from being used inappropriately or differently from its intended purpose," Clawson told the City Council's public safety committee at the time.

The department reiterated its pledge to limit data-sharing at a Sept. 21 meeting, when Pasadena City Council voted to authorize the purchase of new license plate readers from Vigilant Solutions in Livermore, Calif., so long as the contract included provisions prohibiting the sharing of data for monetary reasons and limiting data sharing to police agencies only.

But documents show Pasadena police have been passing license plate data directly to ICE's Homeland Security Investigations arm.

The documents, obtained by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union through a public records request and shared with The Times, show that as of Nov. 2, Pasadena police shared data with Homeland Security Investigations through its Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, which provides real-time information to law enforcement agencies investigating attempts to smuggle more than $10,000 in cash or monetary instruments into the U.S.

The department began sharing license plate information with HSI four months ago to help "restrict the flow of funding that supports criminal enterprises," according to Special Services Lt. Bill Grisafe.

Grisafe said in an email last week  the department stopped sharing license plate information with HSI once it realized the division was affiliated with ICE.

He said Homeland Security Investigations' Bulk Cash Smuggling Center was not strictly an immigration enforcement unit, but one focused on preventing the funding of criminal enterprises.

"The City of Pasadena and the Pasadena Police Department stand by their commitment to not directly assist ICE in investigating, detaining or arresting individuals solely for violations of federal immigration law," said Grisafe. "We will review the matter in detail to ensure that no inadvertent contacts are made with ICE through which they might gain access to City information through some back door or information sharing program."

Community groups and privacy advocates, who had opposed the city's move to purchase the license plate readers, criticized the department's handling of data.

"At very best it's a very negligent mistake," said Mohammad Tajsar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. "The city committed to not doing this, they should have had the wherewithal to make sure this doesn't happen."

In a letter to city officials ahead of a September discussion about purchasing Vigilant Solutions equipment to replace older equipment, Tajsar wrote the technology was "a grave danger to all immigrants who live or drive through Pasadena."

Used by law enforcement agencies across the state for years, license plate readers have raised concerns among privacy advocates because the technology can track people's movements without their consent. These databases are also built by private firms, which can sell access to anyone willing to pay with little transparency.

The cameras can capture 1,800 license plate numbers per minute and are mounted on vehicles or traffic signal poles.

Even if local agencies restrict sharing data explicitly with ICE, these broader network databases still pose a problem, privacy activists and researchers say.

"Vigilant Solutions would say sharing your data is as easy as adding a friend on Facebook," said Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maass, drawing from the company's promotional materials for its license plate technology. Electronic Frontier Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on privacy issues.

The Motorola-owned company encourages data-sharing among the hundreds of agencies it contracts with. Documents from 2018 obtained by the ACLU show Vigilant Solutions provided ICE with step-by-step guides on how to get license plate data from other agencies, including local and state law enforcement agencies and said it could give ICE access to millions more license plate scans.

Vigilant Solutions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ACLU of Southern California, the Pasadena branch of the NAACP and several other local civil and privacy rights organizations sent a letter to Pasadena city and police officials Monday urging the city to immediately end sharing automatic license plate reader data with the federal government and out-of-state agencies, and to end its contract with Vigilant Solutions.

The letter additionally calls on the city to delete all license plate reader data that are not needed for active investigations, and not to store that type of data for any "significant length of time."

Pasadena isn't the only Southern California city that seems to have reneged on its promise in recent months.

Long Beach policy, passed in 2018 to strengthen the city's sanctuary status, restricts police from turning over information to ICE unless legally obligated.

But an August report by the police, obtained by Long Beach resident and researcher Greg Buhl through a records request and shared with The Times, showed the Long Beach Police Department was sending license plate reader data directly to ICE.

When journalist Kevin Flores detailed Long Beach's data sharing with ICE last month based on the documents obtained by Buhl, Long Beach police said they would conduct an administrative review.

The department determined that an employee had inadvertently granted ICE access to automated license plate reader data using Vigilant's "group approval" feature, according to Long Beach Police Department spokesman Brandon Fahey.

"Once this report was brought to our attention, we confirmed that we are not currently sharing information with ICE through the ALPR system," Fahey said. "It should be noted that personal identifying information associated with read plates was never shared. Since discovering this error, the Department has implemented several protocols to ensure this error does not occur again in the future, including prohibiting group approvals and adding additional steps in the review and approval process."

Police in both Pasadena and Long Beach agencies continue to share automated license plate reader data with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and California's Joint Regional Intelligence Center, which partners with the Department of Homeland Security and shares information widely with federal law enforcement agencies.

Arrangements with outside agencies could render moot any promises to keep data way from ICE, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Maass said.

"With data as sensitive as license plate data, agencies should consider not sharing with other agencies at all, and if they are, only in a very limited number, who agree to abide by the same rules, with an oversight process to make sure you catch the bad actors searching the data inappropriately," Maass said.

The Pasadena police's Grisafe said, "the Pasadena Police Department has and will continue to work with Federal Law Enforcement Agencies to bring transnational and other criminal syndicates to justice. The City of Pasadena and the Pasadena Police Department have no interest in assisting with the identification and deportation of persons not engaged in such activity."

The city of Chula Vista is also grappling with similar privacy concerns after the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed this month that local police allowed federal agencies including ICE to access data collected from license plate readers.

At a Dec. 8 meeting, Chula Vista's mayor said the city had temporarily blocked federal agencies with an immigration enforcement component from accessing data.

California passed legislation in 2015 aiming to build rules around how automated license plate reader data are used by public agencies in California. But a state audit published in February found that the Los Angeles Police Department and three other California law enforcement agencies did not provide sufficient privacy protections for data collected by automated license plate readers and shared with other jurisdictions.

(c)2020 the Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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