California Strengthens Protections for Immigrants and Refugees, Restricts ICE’s Access to Public Utility Data

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Governor Signs Bill by Assemblymember Gloria Ending ICE’s Practice of Accessing Public Utility Data to Facilitate Deportations

SAN DIEGO, CA – A bill by California State Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) that would end Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) practice of accessing gas and electric customer utility data to facilitate deportations has been signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom. Assembly Bill 2788 (AB 2788) will prevent electric and gas utilities from disclosing a customer’s electric or gas consumption data with immigrations authorities without a subpoena or judicial warrant starting January 1, 2021.

This is a tremendous victory for the privacy of all Californians and an important safeguard for our immigrant and refugee communities,” said Assemblymember Todd Gloria. “We know ICE has repeatedly accessed customer data from public utilities in California to learn not only where a person lives, but when they’re home – and it’s been done without a court order. Thanks to Governor Newsom and his support for AB 2788, that will not happen again.”

Public utility data, also known as “smart meter data” is particularly sensitive as it can reveal where a person lives, the number of people in a household, and when individuals are home. Current law prohibits public utilities from releasing smart meter data usage to a commercial third party without a customer’s consent, unless there is a subpoena. ICE circumvents this process by using their own administrative subpoenas instead of securing judicial authority. AB 2788 closes this gap in existing law and requires ICE to get a court-ordered subpoena or warrant in order to access this data.

"The privacy of a consumer's data is critically important when it comes to energy usage. Your data must not be used against you without, at a bare minimum, some reasonable judicial oversight and approval through appropriate legal channels,” said Robert Herrell, Executive Director for the Consumer Federation of California. “Arbitrary disclosure of your life pattern - when you go to sleep, or work, or anything else - should never be inappropriately disclosed."

Under the rules of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), electric and gas utilities are required to annually report the number of demands received for disclosure of customer data. These transparency reports have revealed that ICE and other agencies have requested and received utility data from a large number of customers. Upon reviewing these transparency reports, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) highlighted that one utility in California had received the largest number of data demands by far and handed over the records of 4,062 customers in a single year. In most instances, these requests were based on administrative subpoenas issued by the agency seeking the data, not by a court order.