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California Senate Committee Votes Against Privacy for Our Travel Patterns

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of California joined forces with California State Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) on Tuesday to testify in favor of S.B. 712, a bill that would have allowed drivers to cover their license plates when parked in order to protect their travel patterns from private companies operating automated license plate readers (ALPRs).

The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee heard testimony on how private ALPR companies are collecting massive amounts of data on innocent people's driving patterns and selling it for profit. Despite learning how this data may be misused to target vulnerable communities by the federal government, a Democratic majority voted to kill the bill 6-5.

The bill would have adjusted current law, which allows drivers to cover their entire vehicles (for example with a tarp), so that a driver can cover just a portion: the plate. Police would still have the ability to lift the cover to inspect the plate, and since the measure only applied to parked vehicles, it would not have affected law enforcement's ability to collect data on moving vehicles. 

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Here's the text of EFF's opening testimony from the hearing:

Mr. Chair and Members. 

My name is Dave Maass, and I represent the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a sponsor of S.B. 712. EFF is a non-profit organization that defends civil liberties as the world becomes a more digital place. 

I am a researcher who investigates police technology. My previous work has resulted in agencies fixing insecure surveillance cameras, a federal fraud investigation into child-safety software, and increased disclosure of misuse of police databases. 

Since November, not a week has gone by when I haven’t been asked the same questions: How do we protect our communities from being targeted? More chillingly, they ask: Do we need to start building a new Underground Railroad?

I immediately think about the massive amount of data being collected by automated license plate readers operated by private companies: billions and billions of data points mapping out our travel patterns. These companies rent this data to law enforcement but they also sell it to the private sector. Lenders examine travel patterns before approving a loan. Insurers look at travel patterns before quoting a rate. Collections agencies use it to hunt down debtors.

A user could easily key in the address of a mosque, an immigration law clinic, an LGBT health center to reveal whole networks of vulnerable communities. A user could program the system to identify associates and get real time alerts about a driver’s whereabouts.

The California Constitution is supposed to protect us from these invasions of our privacy. 

In 1972, voters agreed that we have an inalienable right to pursue and obtain privacy. Your predecessors in the legislature explicitly stated this amendment would protect us from computerized mass surveillance by police and private companies.

SB 712 allows Californians to cover our plates when our vehicles are lawfully parked. This is a balanced approach that would not affect how police use ALPR technology to monitor moving vehicles.

Today you are voting on whether we can exercise our constitutional right to privacy against advanced surveillance systems logging our travel patterns. Thank you for this opportunity. I respectfully ask for your aye vote.  

These senators voted in favor of the legislation: Sens. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado), Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). EFF thanks these lawmakers for their support for motorists’ location privacy.

Voting in opposition were: Sens. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), Toni Atkins (D-San Diego),  Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), Richard Roth (D-Riverside), and Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont). Several cited vague public safety and parking enforcement concerns.

Some of these senators acknowledged the threat to our privacy caused by ALPR companies and suggested that different, perhaps more robust legislation was necessary. EFF looks forward to taking these senators at their word and pursuing further privacy protections next session. 

The full hearing, including EFF's rebuttal to law enforcement arguments, is available on YouTube.

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