Attention California: the privacy and security of your driver licenses are under threat from a new scheme to massively expand how photo IDs are shared and analyzed by law enforcement agencies.
Over the last few months, an obscure panel within the California Department of Justice (DOJ) has been taking steps to connect the statewide law-enforcement system for accessing driver license photos and mugshots, Cal-Photo, with a national network of other states’ photo systems. The plan also calls for combining facial recognition with Cal-Photo for investigators to use in the field. The so-called “advisory committee”—made up of representatives from police advocacy groups—has advanced these issues to “priority status,” undeterred by numerous warnings these efforts would violate state laws.
EFF sent a letter to this advisory committee last week, demanding they put the brakes on the project immediately. With the group and its subcommittee's nextmeetings set for March 25, we’re calling on Californians to also send emails opposing the projects.
If you want to follow the paper trail with us, you'll first need to learn some acronyms, including acronyms within acronyms.
CLETS stands for the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, the giant computer network that links up law enforcement agencies across the state and allows them to access driver license and photo IDs through Cal-Photo as well as other types of data and records.
Overseeing this system is the CLETS Advisory Committee (CAC) and its Standing Strategic Planning Subcommittee (SSPS), both of which are made up of delegates from groups such as the California Peace Officers Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the California State Sheriffs Association, as well as representatives from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Office of Emergency Services, and the California Highway Patrol.
Another acronym is NLETS, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, the federally funded, but privately operated system that describes itself as “the premiere interstate justice and public safety network in the nation for the exchange of law enforcement-, criminal justice-, and public safety-related information.” The Cal-Photo system links to tens of millions of photos; this represents one of the great potential mother lodes to NLETS, which offers grant money to states in an effort to expand its network.
In August 2014, SSPS began reviewing a list of law-enforcement goals approved in 2009 to see whether they were still beneficial today. Goal 8 is “Expand Cal-Photo’s capability to share photos on a national basis; and, deploy facial recognition as an investigative tool.”
A DMV representative told SSPS that neither photo-sharing nor facial recognition are possible under “current statutory and regulatory authority,” and asked the subcommittee to remove the goal from the strategic plan. However, representatives from the sheriff’s association and the California League of Cities pushed back hard, saying the issue was too important to drop. CAC approved the recommendation later that day and SSPS began making arrangements to meet with the DMV to pursue this goal.
Here's how this debate appeared in the SSPS meeting minutes [PDF]:
At the next SSPS meeting in December 2014 [PDF], members reported that they had met with the DMV director, who reiterated that several laws stand in the way of photo-sharing and even more statutes would block the implementation facial recognition. The delegate from the California Peace Officers’ Association shrugged that off, saying he believed a review of the statutes would indicate that law-enforcement access would “probably be appropriate.”
SSPS voted to begin organizing closed-door meetings between the heads of the state’s top law enforcement associations and the DMV director to discuss ways to move forward. In the meantime, they decided to begin building the photo-sharing infrastructure, starting with a $50,000 system that would connect NLETS and CLETS to give California cops access to other states’ DMV photos through California’s SmartJustice web app.
Although this would be a one-way exchange, a SSPS member from the California justice department said it would “pave the way for California to share photos with other states.”
Within days of the meeting, California DOJ staff assigned to CLETS began issuing invitations to associations and applying for a grant from NLETS—which NLETS approved within two weeks.
In the grant application [PDF], the California DOJ made it clear that the underlying plan was to first implement one-way sharing as a way to pressure the DMV to get on board with the greater goal of mutual exchange.
They further added:
As CAC and SSPS began coordinating its high-level meeting with law-enforcement associations, the DMV issued a legal analysis [PDF] concluding that the California Legislature must directly authorize such photo-sharing with NLETS.
“No affirmative authorization is found in existing state statutes that would require or allow the transmission and wholesale sharing of DL/ID photos between Cal-Photo and NLETS,” the DMV wrote. The DMV also articulated grave concerns about privacy and security, claiming it would “open the door to random accessing of photos” and that the DMV would be unable to track the sources of data breaches.
By our count, that’s three times the CLETS committee and subcommittee has been told that their plans run counter to the law and three times they’ve decided to move forward anyway. There may be a fourth time, depending on how those closed-door meetings went, which we may learn more about at the committees’ March 25 meetings in Folsom.
EFF is extremely concerned about the prospects of police around the country having the ability to access Californians’ records with insufficient accountability measures in place. We have also long been wary of the growing use of facial recognition technology, which can allow police to identify everyday citizens who aren’t involved in a crime, including through scanning photos on social media. Most of all, we are alarmed at how quickly these advisory committees are moving forward while dismissing the DMV’s legal concerns.
Decisions of this magnitude must be made with full public engagement and the involvement of the legislature, not in obscure committee meetings or in closed-door sessions with law enforcement lobby groups.