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Sacramento County ends ‘mind-boggling’ automated license plate reader program tracking welfare recipients

Oakland’s Automatic License Plate Recognition cameras

A visualization of eight days of data collected by Oakland's automatic license plate recognition cameras. Each red dot is a license plate being captured by a camera mounted to an Oakland Police vehicle, EFF said.
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A visualization of eight days of data collected by Oakland's automatic license plate recognition cameras. Each red dot is a license plate being captured by a camera mounted to an Oakland Police vehicle, EFF said.

For more than two years, the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance has been using an automated license-plate reader system to track and investigate welfare beneficiaries, without a state mandated privacy and usage policy.

As of Nov. 1, welfare fraud investigators will no longer be using that data, after digital privacy and welfare rights organizations raised concerns of civil rights violations.

“Although use of this data is legal and legitimate, we have terminated access to the data by our investigative team effective November 1, 2018,” Department of Human Assistance director Ann Edwards wrote in a letter to the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, which had argued against the use of the system along with digital-rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

While law enforcement officers regularly use data collected by automated license plate recognition, or ALPR, cameras to investigate and find suspects and criminals, Electronic Frontier Foundation argued it was rare for local welfare agencies to utilize the data for welfare fraud investigations.

“It’s kind of troubling,” said Kevin Aslanian, executive director of the Coaltion of California Welfare Rights Organizations. “They get your license and know exactly where you go. ... It was just mind-boggling.”

He added that the program is meant to “follow mobsters and drug (traffickers)” and should not be “a tool used for people with children, living in ... deep poverty.”

Since the county began using ALPR information in June 2016, data was accessed by 22 investigators 1,193 times, or in about 3 percent of the 41,144 fraud cases investigated in that period, according to chief investigator for DHA Shawn Loehr. In 38 percent of cases investigated, the division discovered fraud, though it does not keep track of how many of those cases were assisted with ALPR data.

Edwards previously told The Bee that ALPR data was used on a “case-by-case” basis to locate individuals who “sometimes (are) not at their stated address.”

“The Program Integrity Division has the legal authority to access this data for criminal investigations. However, due to the low level of use in relation to our caseload, DHA made the decision to discontinue ALPR use,” said Loehr in a statement Wednesday.

Welfare fraud includes activities like failing to report income or claiming care for a child who does not actually live with the benefits recipient, according to DHA.

Actual instances of welfare fraud are rare, however, Aslanian said.

“Two or 3 percent is a big number,” he said of welfare recipients whose tracking information was pulled by the county. “Even 500 or 1,000 people, that’s a lot of people.”

The department will end its contract with the ALPR database run by Livermore-based corporation Vigilant Solutions in May 2019, according to DHA letter.

The DHA’s use of a database containing time and geolocation information for billions of license plate scans was initially publicized in July by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A state law passed in 2015 requires agencies using ALPR systems to maintain a security policy to “ensure that the collection, use, maintenance, sharing, and dissemination of ALPR information is consistent with respect for individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”

The county department, however, did not have an established policy until EFF investigator Dave Maass filed a public records request.

“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 previously told The Bee.

Though Edwards’ letter notes “we reserve the right to resume use of this data,” Aslanian said after meeting with Edwards, he doesn’t believe the department will return to the data, saying “she also agrees that poor people shouldn’t be treated like that.”

In a statement, Loehr said there are no plans to access the data at this time, and future usage will be announced publicly.

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