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California civil liberties groups try to stop data sharing to protect those seeking abortions

Jonathan Leibson
Getty Images for Vanity Fair
An ACLU pin is seen during a private dinner in Los Angeles in February.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, and the ACLUs of Northern and Southern California demanded that 71 law enforcement agencies throughout the state stop sharing license plate data with out-of-state agencies.

Last week, a demand letter was sent to 71 police departments across 22 counties in California, including the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, as first reported by the Eureka Times-Standard. These departments have shared data with law enforcement agencies across the country, including in states with abortion restrictions, like Texas and Louisiana.

The civil liberties groups are concerned this information could be used to identify and prosecute people who seek and provide abortions, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to an abortion, last year.

The data comes from automated license plate readers, camera systems that are often mounted on streetlights or attached to police cars. They collect and store information about drivers, including dates, times and locations.

“Law enforcement officers in anti-abortion jurisdictions who receive the locations of drivers collected by California-based ALPRs [automated license plate readers] may seek to use that information to monitor abortion clinics and the vehicles seen around them and closely track the movements of abortion seekers and providers," the demand letters read. "This threatens even those obtaining or providing abortions in California, since several anti-abortion states plan to criminalize and prosecute those who seek or assist in out-of-state abortions.”

“Sharing ALPR data with law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion undermines California’s extensive efforts to protect reproductive health privacy," Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Jennifer Pinsof said in a press release.

The groups also argue that sharing this information violates two California state laws, which govern how agencies can use this data and aim to protect the data of people seeking abortions.

"The sharing of ALPR information is harmful because it exposes the sensitive location information of drivers to misuse in states without California’s privacy protections. The only way to prevent these harms and address these violations of the law is the [sic] terminate the out-of-state sharing," the letters read.

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and Electronic Frontier Foundation did not respond to request for comment.

The groups have given the police agencies until June 15th to respond to their demand.

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.