Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
AP

Lawsuit: California utility targeted Asians in pot searches

  • Updated

FILE - In this photo released by the Riverside County Sheriff's Office are some of about 700 marijuana plants found in an illegal grow in a home near Temecula, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019. A data privacy watchdog's lawsuit says a Northern California utility routinely fed customers' power use information to police so they could target illicit marijuana grows, without requiring a warrant or suspicion of wrongdoing.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — 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 state law and utility customers’ privacy rights, and even more unacceptable that they targeted a specific community in doing so,” she said in a statement.

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey said the foundation isn't aware of any other California public utilities that are sharing data in the same way as SMUD.

Private utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are barred from disclosing customer utility data to law enforcement without a court order under state law and California Public Utility Commission rules, he said.

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

SMUD is the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric service provider, serving more than 600,000 customers, the suit says.

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

The lawsuit comes as officials are struggling to curtail illegal cannabis grows that are stunting the growth of the legal, licensed recreational marijuana production that California voters approved in 2016.

Disguising illegal cannabis farms in ordinary appearing homes became prevalent nearly two decades ago as authorities disrupted outdoor plots they could spot from helicopters and other surveillance flights.

Law enforcement authorities often discovered the illegal grow houses because of their extraordinary use of electricity to run high-intensity lights, ventilation fans and other devices to grow thousands of marijuana plants, often enabling several harvests each year.

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

Sacramento officials estimated in 2017 that there might be as many as 1,000 illegal grow houses in California’s capital city.

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

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

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


Subscribe to stay connected to Tucson. A subscription helps you access more of the local stories that keep you connected to the community.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

A Georgia judge has rejected an agreement that would have provided a huge property tax break to Rivian Automotive. The ruling clouds the upstart electric truck maker’s plans to build a $5 billion plant east of Atlanta that would employ 7,500 people. Morgan County Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell finds that under state law, Rivian should be required to pay regular property taxes. She also finds that a local development authority hasn't proved that Rivian's plan is “sound, reasonable and feasible," citing the company's production and financial challenges. The challenge was brought by opponents of the plant. State and local economic developers say they're considering an appeal. Rivian declined to comment.

The long list of celebrities promoting cryptocurrencies just got shorter. Kim Kardashian is being barred from doing so for three years — and will pay a $1 million fine — to settle federal charges that she recommended a crypto security to her 330 million Instagram followers without making clear that she was paid to do so. The reality TV star also must give up the $250,000 she was paid for the Instagram post about Ethereum Max tokens, plus interest. That's according to a Securities and Exchange Commission settlement announced Monday. Kardashian is the latest celebrity to get ensnared in regulations that require full disclosure by people getting paid to promote financial products.

As TikTok's popularity has exploded, it's become more than just a place for viral dance challenges. Young voters are increasingly using the app to learn about politics, elections and issues. And candidates are taking notice. But while politicians from both parties promote the app as a powerful way to reach young voters, some elected officials urge caution. They say concerns about TikTok's parent company, its ties to China's government and its handling of user data should make anyone think carefully before signing up for the platform. That's not denting its popularity though. TikTok continues to be one of the most downloaded and used sites on the internet.

President Joe Biden, a self-described “car guy,″ often promises to lead by example on climate change by moving swiftly to convert the sprawling U.S. government fleet to zero-emission electric vehicles. But efforts to eliminate gas-powered vehicles from the fleet have lagged. Biden last year directed the government to purchase only American-made zero-emission passenger cars by 2027. But the General Services Administration, which buys two-thirds of the federal fleet, says there are no guarantees. It cites big upfront costs and specialized agency needs, such as off-road vehicles for national parks that have limited EV options. About 13% of new light-duty vehicles purchased across the government this year — meaning about 3,550 — were zero emissions.

UnitedHealth Group says it has completed its acquisition of Change Healthcare, closing the roughly $8 billion deal a couple weeks after a judge rejected a challenge from regulators. UnitedHealth is merging the technology company with its Optum segment. The health care giant said the combination will simplify clinical, administrative and payment processes for care providers and bill payers. The Justice Department had sued to block the deal. Regulators argued it would put too much information about health care claims in the hands of one company. But U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols issued an order last month denying the government’s request.

Soon enough, a bedside Amazon device might know whether you’re sleeping — or not. The e-commerce and tech giant said Wednesday that it will release a device that can track sleeping patterns without a wristband. The Halo Rise device will use no-contact sensors and artificial intelligence to measure a user’s movement and breathing patterns. The company says that will allow the device to track sleep stages during the night. Amazon says the device will be available for $139.99 later this year. Separately, the company said it will release a new Kindle Scribe, the first Kindle consumers can write on. It will also add more features to its Ring doorbell cameras, home robot Astro and release new Echo devices.

North Korea has conducted its longest-ever weapons test, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that flew over Japan and could reach the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and beyond. The launch early Tuesday forced the Japanese government to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains. It was the most provocative weapons demonstration by North Korea this year. The country seeks to develop a fully fledged nuclear arsenal capable of threatening U.S. allies and the American homeland and earn the country recognition as a nuclear state. The United States strongly condemned what it described as North Korea’s “dangerous and reckless decision” to launch the missile over Japan.

Japan said it is providing a major U.S. chipmaker a subsidy of up to $322 million to back its plan to produce advanced memory chips at a Hiroshima factory. The two countries are stepping up cooperation on expanding manufacturing and supply chains for critical materials. Japan’s Economy and Trade Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said the government approved the Micron Technologies deal under a law related to economic security. The announcement follows U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in Japan where she met with Japanese government and semiconductor officials to seek greater cooperation between the two countries.

A massive trove of emails from Mexico’s Defense Department is among electronic communications taken by hackers from military and police security institutions in several Latin American countries. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed the breach Friday and Chile’s government said last week that emails had been taken from its Joint Chiefs of Staff. The 10 terabytes of data taken also include emails from the militaries in El Salvador, Peru and Colombia, as well as El Salvador’s National Police. The Mexico hack appeared to be the largest. The group responsible calls itself Guacamaya.

President Joe Biden says a $20 billion investment by IBM in New York’s Hudson River Valley will help give the United States a technological edge against China. He hailed the company's expansion during an appearance Thursday in Poughkeepsie, New York, with two House Democrats in competitive races in next month’s critical elections. The president cites IBM’s commitment as part of a larger manufacturing boom, spurred by this summer’s passage of a $280 billion measure intended to boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research. He says that legislation was needed for national and economic security and that “the Chinese Communist Party actively lobbied against” it.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News