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Passing, Defeating, and Leveraging Legislation in California: 2016 in Review

While the presidential election has thrown the federal government into a cloud of uncertainty, one thing is clear: EFF has never been in a better position to protect our rights on the state level in California. In 2016, we built off our previous victories around surveillance transparency, passed new laws reforming criminal justice, defeated other bills that would’ve weakened our liberties, and laid the groundwork for the hard fight ahead in 2017.

Here’s a round-up of some of our efforts in Sacramento over the last year.

Crowdsourcing Transparency

In 2015, EFF supported a series of bills to require government agencies to disclose their policies for use of automated license plate readers (ALPR) and cell-site simulators, and to publish inventories of all the systems they use to store data on the public. The three bills went into effect this year, and EFF’s supporters were ready to hold the agencies to account.

In April, more than 30 citizen watchdogs joined EFF for the “California Surveillance Sweep,” in which we combed through local government agency websites for policies related to ALPR and cell-tracking technology. We found nearly 80 policies, but also identified another 90 that were not in compliance with the new laws. In the months since, many of those agencies have responded to our report by publishing those policies online.

In August, our team of transparency advocates reassembled for the “California Database Hunt,” in which we scoured government websites for inventories of “enterprise systems,” the software systems agencies use to store information. These inventories are supposed to disclose the types of information agencies collect on the public and the purposes for amassing the information. In all, we compiled more 400 catalogs from across the state. Later EFF presented our findings at a state senate committee. Watch the video here.

Next year, the legislature will consider a bill to expand these requirements to cover a larger array of surveillance technologies, and we look forward to working with the sponsor, Sen. Jerry Hill, on promoting these transparency efforts. 

Gang Database Reform

A deep investigation by Reveal, followed by a California State Auditor’s report, found massive problems with CalGang, the state’s law enforcement database that contains information on suspected gang members and their associates. The database was found to be rife with errors, lacking accountability, and providing little crime-fighting value. 

EFF joined a coalition of justice organizations to flood legislators and the governor with emails in support A.B. 2298, a bill that would partially reform CalGang.The bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, requiring law enforcement to inform people before they’re added to a shared gang database. Under the new law, people have a chance to go to court to challenge their inclusion in a gang database. And by January 2018, agencies that maintain these databases will have to produce detailed transparency reports.

No SmartPhone Backdoors

Amid the battle between Apple and the FBI over access to an encrypted iPhone used by a suspect in the San Bernadino shooting, Assemblymember Jim Cooper introduced a bill to require phone manufacturers to decrypt phones or else pay a fine. EFF launched a campaign to defeat the bill and emerged victorious: the legislation never made it out of its first committee. 

Keeping Public Records in the Public Domain

Following a brouhaha over who owns the name to a resort in Yosemite, the state legislature introduced a bill that would allow government agencies to claim intellectual property rights over government-produced works, overturning the current status quo that puts most public records in the public domain. The bill could have limited the right of the public and the press to publish records they received through the California Public Records Act. EFF, and a coalition of 25 organizations, fought hard against the legislation, resulting in the author abandoning the bill.

Defending Drone Enthusiasts

Several lawmakers in California introduced bills designed to regulate the consumer drone industry. While the lawmakers may have had good motives to protect people’s privacy and safety, the bills went too far by fully outlawing the arming of drones with devices that might damage property or hurt people. Now, on first glance, that might not seem like a terrible idea. But on further analysis EFF learned that the bill would criminalize the ability of drone enthusiasts to engage in voluntary aerial combat games, in which drones dogfight with only rudimentary weapons, like a dangling wire to jam an opponent’s rotors. EFF stood up for the rights to innovate and to participate in events like those staged by the Aerial Sports League at Maker Faire SF. We ultimately defeated the bills.

Victory for Virtual Currency

The California Assembly resurrected a short-sighted proposal to overregulate the virtual currency industry. The bill was fraught with technically inaccurate information and burdensome requirements for start-ups that would ultimately hurt the consumer. EFF pushed back with the help of the virtual currency proponents, ultimately sending the bill back into hibernation.

This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2016.

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