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Database of license plate photos used to track Sacramento County welfare clients in California

Police in Sacramento, California are using a driver license plate reading system to track welfare recipients. This file photo shows cars on a New York freeway. (. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

An agency in Sacramento County, California, is using a database of license plate images to help investigate welfare fraud, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee.

The images are stored in a database that police routinely use to track drivers and solve crimes.

But it is unusual for a welfare agency to be accessing such a database, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international digital rights non-profit based in San Francisco. The agency also may have violated state law by tapping into the database without having any rules in place for its use, the EFF told the Bee.

How is it used?

Department of Human Assistance Director Ann Edwards told the news outlet that investigators use the database on a case-by-case basis, depending on the scope of an investigation.

“It’s really used to help us locate folks that are being investigated for welfare fraud,” Edwards said. “Sometimes they’re not at their stated address.”

But everyone’s data is being captured, including that of non-criminals.

Automated license plate recognition cameras, also called ALPRs, are typically attached to street poles, streetlights, highway overpasses, mobile trailers, or police squad cars. The cameras automatically capture all license plate numbers that come into view, noting the location, date and time. In addition to photos of the vehicle, pictures of the driver and passengers may be included. All of the data is uploaded to and stored in a centralized computer server.

Millions of people who are not criminal suspects are being tracked by photos of their license plates and that is alarming, the EFF writes on its website.

Why is this important?

The practice can place a chill on rights protected by the First Amendment.

“Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data can paint an intimate portrait of a driver’s life and even chill First Amendment protected activity," EFF’s website states. "ALPR technology can be used to target drivers who visit sensitive places such as health centers, immigration clinics, gun shops, union halls, protests, or centers of religious worship.”

County welfare investigators in Sacramento began using ALPR data in June of 2016, but it appears  many people are not aware of it, according to the Bee. Since then, investigators have found fraud in about 13,000 of the 35,412 fraud referrals they investigated, roughly 37 percent of the time, the DHA told the Bee.

Welfare fraud can include failing report income or claiming dependents who do not live with the benefits recipient.

In all, 22 welfare fraud investigators and investigative assistants have accessed ALPR data a total of 1,110 times since 2016, Edwards told the news outlet. That means investigators used ALPR data about 2.5 percent of the time.

“It doesn’t appear to be overused,” Edwards said. “I think we use it very judiciously and only when needed to investigate fraud.”

Mike Herald, a director with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, sees it differently.

“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,” Herald told the news outlet.

He accused the county of inflating the significance of welfare fraud and of picking on its poorest residents.

“I think we’re only picking on a group of people who are extremely poor and they want to create a perception with the public that there is a real big fraud problem with welfare programs,” he said.

How much is information is collected?

According to the report, the DHA pays about $5,000 a year for access to the database. Vigilant Solutions, the company that collects the data, sells it to law enforcement and “investigatory agencies around the country.”

In 2016, The Atlantic reported that Vigilant Solutions at that time, had approximately 2.2 billion photos of license plates. Additionally, the company photographs about 80 million images every month.

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