Police in recent years have tapped into a vast database of license plate images to track drivers and solve crimes.
Few people know, however, that Sacramento County welfare fraud investigators have been using that same data since 2016.
It is rare for a welfare agency to use data collected by automated license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras, which snap photos of all license plates from street poles and police cars as vehicles drive by, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. The organization is particularly concerned that the Sacramento County agency violated state law by accessing the database without rules in place for its use.
County welfare fraud investigators with the Department of Human Assistance use ALPR data to find suspects and collect evidence to prove cases of fraud, said DHA Director Ann Edwards. Investigators determine whether to use the data on a “case-by-case” basis “depending on the investigative needs of the case,” she said.
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“It’s really used to help us locate folks that are being investigated for welfare fraud,” she said. “Sometimes they’re not at their stated address.”
Through agreements, law enforcement agencies across California and the U.S. upload the images they obtain to a database owned by Livermore-based corporation Vigilant Solutions, which says the data help police solve crimes, track down kidnappers and recover stolen vehicles. Users can search the database by license plate, partial license plate, date or time, year or model of car, or by address where a crime occurred, which can show police which vehicles were in the area, the company’s website says.
The EFF has a more skeptical view of the data-collection practice and said it’s “disturbing” that millions of people who are not suspected of a crime can be tracked with license plate photos.
“ALPR data can paint an intimate portrait of a driver’s life,” EFF’s website says. “ALPR technology can be used to target drivers who visit sensitive places such as health centers, immigration clinics, gun shops, union halls, protests or centers of religious worship.”
Since June 2016, when the county started using ALPR data, investigators discovered fraud had occurred in about 13,000 of the 35,412 fraud referrals they investigated, or about 37 percent of the time, the DHA said. Welfare fraud includes activities like failing to report income and claiming care for a child who does not actually live with the benefits recipient, the DHA said.
Twenty-two welfare fraud investigators and investigative assistants have accessed ALPR data a total of 1,110 times in that two-year period, Edwards said, meaning they use ALPR data about 2.5 percent of the time.
“It doesn’t appear to be overused,” Edwards said. “I think we use it very judiciously and only when needed to investigate fraud.”
But Mike Herald, a director with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said accessing the license plate recognition database is just another example of the county being overly aggressive about pursuing relatively minor fraud cases.
“The use of these really invasive tools ... really bothers me, because we’re really talking about small amounts of money and people who in the main are not actually committing fraud,” Herald said.
Herald said the county is overblowing the significance of welfare fraud.
“I think we’re only picking on a group of people who are extremely poor and they want to create a perception with the public that there is a real big fraud problem with welfare programs,” he said.
Edwards said DHA pays about $5,000 each year to access the data, which Vigilant Solutions sells to law enforcement and investigatory agencies around the country. Company representatives would not provide details about how data is collected or sold, but The Atlantic reported in 2016 that Vigilant Solutions had stored about 2.2 billion photos of license plates at the time, and photographs about 80 million per month.
The EFF, which examined the use of ALPR data by the county over a two-year period, has been collecting mandated privacy and use policies for agencies in California that rely on license plate data. It says DHA did not have one in place.
EFF investigator Dave Maass said his interaction with the department over its policy was “one of the more bizarre things” he’s experienced. Because he couldn’t find a policy on DHA’s website, he filed a public records request with the county.
“Instead of telling me, ‘Hey, we don’t have a policy,’ they generated a policy really quickly and then gave it to me as if it had existed,” Maass said. “It was only when I called back again and said, ‘Hey did this exist (prior to our request),’ they said, ‘No, we didn’t know until you submitted a public records request.’”
Edwards said her department was unaware it was required by Senate Bill 34, which took effect at the beginning of 2016, to create a privacy and usage policy that respected people’s privacy and civil liberties. She said as soon as EFF told her department about the violation, DHA quickly created a policy and posted it on its website, in accordance with state law.
Edwards said DHA was already following other parts of the law, including a justification for each use of ALPR data.
“Each time a criminal investigator accesses the information, they ... must document the reason why the data is being requested from the system,” she said. The department was not conducting periodic audits of the documentation to ensure that investigators are using the data the way they claim, which is also required by law. But Edwards says internal audits are starting this week, and will occur every two months.
“We will be doing a random sampling of times (ALPR data) has been used in the past, in order to confirm that it hasn’t been used inappropriately,” she said. “If we find as a result of our review that it was used inappropriately, disciplinary action could be taken.”
DHA’s policy does not specify what an appropriate use is beyond generally describing it as a “legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
Maass thinks the department should stop using ALPR data altogether, at least for now.
“They should definitely halt it immediately and do an investigation,” he said.
Without frequent audits and an investigation into each of the department’s past uses of ALPR data, Maass said, there’s no way to know what fraud investigators were searching for.
They could be doing anything from “investigating a major fraud case to spying on their ex-spouses,” he said. “Were they looking up people in Texas, people on the other side of the country? We just don’t know.”