California Police Violate 2016 Law: Have Been Illegally Sharing License Plate Reader Data

Police Car Flashing Lights
Police Car Flashing Lights

Some of California’s largest police departments have been collecting millions of images of drivers’ license plates and sharing them with entities around the country—without having necessary security policies in place, in violation of state law, according to a newly released state audit.

The audit, published Thursday, found that 230 police and sheriff’s departments in the state currently use automated license plate readers (ALPRs), which can be fixed cameras or devices mounted on patrol cars. Police have touted the technology as necessary for enforcing parking and basic municipal laws, and as a vital tool in child abduction cases and other high-profile investigations.

But the California State Auditor’s office found that most of the data collected is on innocent people and their car movements.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has collected more than 320 million images over the last several years. Only 400,000 of those generated immediate matches to cars of interest, but the remaining 99.9 percent of the images, which can be used to track peoples’ movement across the city, stay stored in a department database for more than five years, according to the audit.

The LAPD then adds other sensitive information to that database, sometimes tagging the photos with criminal records, names, addresses, and dates of birth. Meanwhile, the department has not established any written policy governing the proper use of its ALPR data, in violation of a 2016 state law.

Sen. Scott Wiener, who requested the audit, said he plans to introduce follow-up legislation to ensure law enforcement agencies are following the laws.

In a brief response published along with the audit, the LAPD said it plans to finalize an ALPR plan by April.

“The LAPD will perform an assessment of the systems’ data security features and retention periods for ALPR images to evaluate the need for adjustment, prior to publishing of the ALPR policy,” the department wrote. “Furthermore, the policy will list the entities the department shares ALPR images with and the process for handling image-sharing requests.”

To read the full report click on the PDF below.

Download The PDF
Download The PDF