News

Is police information ripe for abuse?

Palo Alto police Officer Marianna Villaescusa and dispatcher Lindsay Moore discuss the day's plans in the dispatch room in 2012. Embarcadero Media file photo.

This article is part of a larger story on police agencies encrypting radio dispatch communications, which can be found here.

---

While the FBI and California Department of Justice (DOJ) say private information might fall into the wrong hands when the public and the press listen to radio transmissions on scanners, there have been hundreds of instances of police abuses of the system by law enforcement staff themselves, according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit organization advocating for privacy and accountability regarding technology and the law. The foundation has researched abuses of the system by law enforcement employees for the past five years.

The foundation has pressed for transparency over police abuses of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) system. In 2017 alone, they found 143 cases of privacy abuses, according to the foundation's reports. The abuses included using the CLETS information to stalk ex-partners, gain advantage in custody proceedings and to screen potential online dates. In one of the worst incidents, a Los Angeles police officer allegedly attempted to leak records on witnesses to the family of a convicted murderer, the foundation noted.

Electronic Frontier Foundation pushed the state DOJ to better track the abuses. In 2018, the state DOJ began requiring law enforcement agencies to report 100% of abuses. Failure to comply could result in sanctions and removal from using the CLETS service, according to a foundation report.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

Interest in protecting private information grew beyond identity theft concerns and police use for private matters, however. In 2019, the Trump administration was pushing for law enforcement agencies to divulge information about detained individuals and their immigration status to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There were concerns that ICE was or would be violating SB 54, the 2017 California Values Act, which prevents state and local law enforcement organizations from using their resources to aid federal immigration enforcement agencies.

Aaron Mackey, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the pendulum has now swung the other way, with regulation meant to prevent improper security access by officers as a pretext to cut off public access to police communications.

One of the fundamental purposes of access to the dispatch transmissions is so the public has knowledge of information about their communities. It's why the press access is so important, he said.

"I'm not aware of any case where (the press) was listening with the purpose of obtaining personal information and misusing it," he said.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

Sue Dremann
 
Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Stay informed on important law enforcement news. Sign up for our FREE daily Express newsletter.

Is police information ripe for abuse?

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 29, 2021, 6:48 am

This article is part of a larger story on police agencies encrypting radio dispatch communications, which can be found here.

---

While the FBI and California Department of Justice (DOJ) say private information might fall into the wrong hands when the public and the press listen to radio transmissions on scanners, there have been hundreds of instances of police abuses of the system by law enforcement staff themselves, according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit organization advocating for privacy and accountability regarding technology and the law. The foundation has researched abuses of the system by law enforcement employees for the past five years.

The foundation has pressed for transparency over police abuses of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) system. In 2017 alone, they found 143 cases of privacy abuses, according to the foundation's reports. The abuses included using the CLETS information to stalk ex-partners, gain advantage in custody proceedings and to screen potential online dates. In one of the worst incidents, a Los Angeles police officer allegedly attempted to leak records on witnesses to the family of a convicted murderer, the foundation noted.

Electronic Frontier Foundation pushed the state DOJ to better track the abuses. In 2018, the state DOJ began requiring law enforcement agencies to report 100% of abuses. Failure to comply could result in sanctions and removal from using the CLETS service, according to a foundation report.

Interest in protecting private information grew beyond identity theft concerns and police use for private matters, however. In 2019, the Trump administration was pushing for law enforcement agencies to divulge information about detained individuals and their immigration status to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There were concerns that ICE was or would be violating SB 54, the 2017 California Values Act, which prevents state and local law enforcement organizations from using their resources to aid federal immigration enforcement agencies.

Aaron Mackey, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the pendulum has now swung the other way, with regulation meant to prevent improper security access by officers as a pretext to cut off public access to police communications.

One of the fundamental purposes of access to the dispatch transmissions is so the public has knowledge of information about their communities. It's why the press access is so important, he said.

"I'm not aware of any case where (the press) was listening with the purpose of obtaining personal information and misusing it," he said.

Comments

Context matters.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2021 at 12:06 pm
Context matters., Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 12:06 pm

Full encryption of PAPD radio dispatch is a mistake. The public, via our government, arms officers and sends them out to enforce the law, so WE are responsible to hold them accountable via our government for their behavior. I don't know how we do that if the press is prevented from accessing radio dispatch info. Transparency is key in any government agency or department--moreso, I think, with police.

The majority of Palo Alto police officers I have met are highly professional, good people --dedicated to serving the public with honor and compassion. However, in every large organization there are some people with characteristics that may not be obvious to their supervisors until a charged public interaction reveals character weakness --impulsivity, racism, dishonesty, willingness to intimidate or bully. While the department may do their best to weed these people out, they may not always be successful. We know police have failed to do this in other communities. Some in our community has argued that they have not been successful here.

Full transparency is important. I get that that the department wants to protect private info, but the article makes clear there are other ways to do that. I think transparency is critical to protect the public from police abuse of power. It is worth spending money to provide that protection.

That said, I fully appreciate PAPD's service. I have had the good luck to work with members of the department, who have my complete respect. Nonetheless, we have an obligation, as a community, to make sure that any bad eggs (that exist in every organization) do not undermine the good work that the department does for our community. I oppose radio dispatch encryption.


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Jan 29, 2021 at 3:03 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 3:03 pm

Encryption is necessary because BAD GUYS listen to police scanners all the time!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 30, 2021 at 10:18 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 10:18 am

I'm curious why recently at around midnight there was a police car with all its lights flashing at the intersection in front of my house. There were more vehicles with THEIR lights flashing down at least one block from the intersection. (You could see other neighbors' lights come on as they too watched the late-night light show.)

They were there for about an hour. There's nothing in the police blotter. There was no noise like from the usual car crash.

I thought it might have been a medical emergency but the vehicles that left were either police cars or police SUVs. Plus why block off a street for a midnight medical emergency?

If there was a major crime in the neighborhood warranting 6 police vehicles, it would seem we have a right to know.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 30, 2021 at 6:46 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 6:46 pm

How did they transmit private information before switching to encryption this month?

The idea that the public and media can't listen to police scanners is disturbing.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.