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California utility targeted Asians in pot searches

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The extraordinary use of electricity has long been a telltale sign of illegal grow houses churning out 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 in racially profiling Asian communities because it routinely passed on data usage information. customers’ energy to the police without requiring a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing, in violation of state laws.

The data disclosure deliberately targeted Asian Americans, resulting in disproportionate penalties against people of Asian descent, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit illustrates a turning point in law enforcement’s efforts to combat illicit drugs.

In 2018, federal and state law enforcement agents seized about 100 Northern California homes they believe were purchased with money wired to the United States by a China-based criminal organization , one of many such actions against alleged perpetrators of Asian descent.

Earlier this year, Asian Americans filed at least two lawsuits against the Siskiyou County Sheriff, alleging racial bias, particularly against the Hmong community, as part of his department’s efforts to combat culture. Widespread illegal marijuana.

The Sacramento Municipal District scanned entire ZIP codes for energy usage information for the Sacramento Police Department, but left out homes in a predominantly white neighborhood, the lawsuit says. And a police analyst removed non-Asian names from a list provided by the public service, forwarding only Asian-sounding names for further investigation, according to the suit.

The utility would hand over a list of customers who used more than a certain threshold of energy in a month, according to the lawsuit. For example, while a typical household might use less than 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity per month, the suit says the utility would disclose homes using more than 3,000 kWh.

The mass disclosure “transforms all of its clientele into potential leads for the police to pursue,” the lawsuit states. It says the utility “freely discloses” customers’ social security, driver’s license and phone numbers.

SMUD and Sacramento police said they could not comment on the ongoing litigation, but SMUD spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham denied any wrongdoing.

“We agree that our customers’ usage data should be (and is) treated with care,” she said Thursday, but she said state law sometimes allows and requires information sharing. with law enforcement.

“We share information about specific properties to stop what we have identified and believe to be power theft and when required to do so at the request of local law enforcement to assist with their investigations,” she said in an email.

“We look forward to being available for questions once the court process is complete,” Sacramento Police Sgt. Zach Eaton said.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of nonprofit Asian American Liberation Network and SMUD client Khurshid Khoja, who is described as an Asian American resident of Sacramento, an attorney for the cannabis industry and an advocate for cannabis rights.

Megan Sapigao, the network’s co-executive director, said “the mass surveillance program is illegal, advances harmful stereotypes and has an overwhelming impact on Asian communities.

“It is unacceptable for two public agencies to carelessly flout state law and the privacy rights of utility customers, and even more unacceptable for them to target a specific community in doing so,” she said. said in a statement.

EFF lead attorney Aaron Mackey said the foundation is not aware of any other California utility sharing data in the same way as SMUD.

Private utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric are not permitted to release customer utility data to law enforcement without a court order under US law. state and California Public Utility Commission rules, he said.

Utilities like SMUD aren’t regulated by the commission, but state law prohibits them “from disclosing the data of entire neighborhoods to law enforcement absent a court order or investigation ongoing,” Mackey said.

SMUD is the sixth-largest community-owned electrical service provider in the country, serving more than 600,000 customers, the lawsuit says.

Southern California Edison policy generally requires a warrant or subpoena to share information with law enforcement. The other two major private utilities did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press about whether they had similar information-sharing programs, nor did the California Public Utilities Commission comment.

The lawsuit comes as authorities work to curb illegal cannabis grows that are stunting the growth of legal and licensed recreational marijuana production that California voters approved in 2016.

The disguise of illegal cannabis farms in ordinary-looking homes became common almost two decades ago, as authorities disrupted outdoor plots they could spot from helicopters and other surveillance flights. .

Law enforcement authorities have often discovered illegal grow houses due to their extraordinary use of electricity to run high-intensity lights, fans, and other devices to grow thousands of plants. of marijuana, often allowing multiple harvests each year.

Sometimes the whistleblowing came when houses caught fire due to illegal electrical hookups.

Sacramento officials estimated in 2017 that there could be as many as 1,000 illegal grow houses in the California capital.

The foundation said the crackdown “has been very lucrative” for Sacramento, since a 2017 city ordinance allowed police to impose stiff penalties on owners of properties where marijuana was found.

The city has imposed nearly $100 million in fines in just two years, the foundation said, about 86% of them to people of Asian descent.

The violation of privacy is more acute with the proliferation of “smart” meters that send energy consumption information to the utility several times a day. This information, collected in increments of 15 minutes or less, can provide “a detailed picture of what is happening in a home,” the foundation said. “It can provide inferences about private daily routines such as which devices are used, when they are used, and how it changes over time.”

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