Future Tense

California Welfare Agency Has Been Using License Plate Readers to Monitor Recipients Since 2016

A license plate for a California car.
The agency reportedly had no usage or privacy policy for the license plate technology, violating state law. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Officials with the Department of Human Assistance, or DHA, in Sacramento, California, have been using license plate readers since 2016 to investigate welfare fraud, the Sacramento Bee reported last week. Police use of the readers, which match pictures of license plates taken from street poles and cop cars to a searchable database, have been on the rise over the past decade. According to the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, it is highly unusual for welfare departments to employ the technology. Moreover, the foundation alleges that the DHA violated California state laws dictating that any entity using a license plate database must institute a privacy-and-usage policy that includes regular audits and record keeping. The department reportedly did not have such a policy until the foundation inquired as to whether one existed.

“It’s really used to help us locate folks that are being investigated for welfare fraud. Sometimes they’re not at their stated address,” DHA Director Ann Edwards told the Sacramento Bee. “I think we use it very judiciously and only when needed to investigate fraud.” The DHA says it has uncovered about 13,000 incidents of welfare fraud in the 35,412 cases it investigated—a 37 percent detection rate—since it began using the license plate data in 2016. Officials accessed the license plate reader database 1,110 times in that period.* The DHA was using a feature of the license plate reader that collects data about every single vehicle in a particular location, regardless of whether the vehicle belonged to a welfare recipient.

Mike Herald, the director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, argues that these fraud cases are not serious enough to merit the use of such a powerful technology. “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,” he said in an interview with the Sacramento Bee.

Indeed, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, investigators can glean an extensive amount of information about a person using the database, which contains complete and partial license plate numbers, the date and time the plate was captured in a photo, the year and model of the car, the GPS coordinates, and what other vehicles were in the area. The foundation has identified 19 agencies that have been sharing such data with the DHA, including police departments in Texas and Iowa. By stringing together the information in the database, officials can determine a person’s travel patterns. Officials can also extrapolate extraordinarily intimate details using location data; for example, a person’s car may be parked outside an STI clinic or an immigration office.

Though the DHA’s use of license plate readers is notable for its unusual application to welfare recipients, privacy advocates have been raising concerns about the technology long before this story broke. Critics have accused law enforcement agencies around the world of abusing the readers and affiliated databases to keep tabs on Muslim communities, political protestors, and journalists’ sources. And, more recently, a chain of California shopping centers came under scrutiny last month for sharing license plate data with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractor.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2018: This piece originally misstated the number of times DHA officials accessed their license plate reader database.