By DON THOMPSON | The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO — Extraordinary use of electricity has long been a telltale sign of illegal grow houses producing thousands of marijuana plants hidden in seemingly ordinary homes.
But a lawsuit filed by a data privacy watchdog says a Northern California utility went too far by racially profiling Asian communities as it routinely fed customers’ power use information to police without requiring a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing, in violation of state laws.
The data disclosure deliberately targeted Asian Americans, with resulting disproportionate penalties against those of Asian descent, the suit says.
The suit illustrates a flashpoint in law enforcement’s efforts to combat illicit drugs.
In 2018, federal and state law enforcement agents seized about 100 Northern California houses that they alleged were bought with money wired to the United States by a Chinese-based crime organization, one of many such actions against alleged perpetrators of Asian descent.
Earlier this year Asian Americans filed at least two lawsuits against Siskiyou County’s sheriff alleging racial bias particularly against the Hmong community in his department’s effort to combat widespread illegal marijuana cultivation.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District scoured entire ZIP codes worth of power usage information for the Sacramento Police Department but left out homes in a predominantly white neighborhood, says the lawsuit. And a police analyst removed non-Asian names from a list provided by the utility, forwarding only Asian-sounding names for more investigation, the suit claims.
The utility would turn over a list of customers who used more than a certain threshold amount of energy in a month, the lawsuit alleges. For instance, while a typical household might use less than 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a month, the suit says the utility would disclose homes using more than 3,000 kWhs.
The bulk disclosure “turns its entire customer base into potential leads for police to chase,” the lawsuit says. It says the utility “liberally discloses” customers’ Social Security, driver’s license and telephone numbers.
SMUD and Sacramento police said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but SMUD spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham denied any wrongdoing.
“We agree that our customer usage data should be (and is) treated with care,” she said Thursday, but she said state law allows and sometimes requires sharing the information with law enforcement agencies.
“We share the information on specific properties to stop what we’ve identified and believe to be power theft and when we are required to do so per local law enforcements’ request to assist them with their investigations,” she said in an email.
“We look forward to being available for questions once legal proceedings have concluded,” Sacramento police Sgt. Zach Eaton said.
The suit was filed Wednesday by the watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of the nonprofit Asian American Liberation Network and SMUD customer Khurshid Khoja, who is described as being an Asian American Sacramento resident, cannabis industry attorney and cannabis rights advocate.
Megan Sapigao, co-executive director of the network, said the “mass surveillance program is unlawful, advances harmful stereotypes, and overwhelmingly impacts Asian communities.
“It’s unacceptable that two public agencies would carelessly flout …read more
Source:: The Mercury News – Latest News
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