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Victoria researchers’ work prompts VicPD privacy investigation

Saanich police traffic safety unit member Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader, which scans licence plates and alerts officers of prohibited drivers and uninsured vehicles. - Kyle Slavin/News staff
Saanich police traffic safety unit member Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader, which scans licence plates and alerts officers of prohibited drivers and uninsured vehicles.
— image credit: Kyle Slavin/News staff

Is Big Brother really watching you?

Three Victoria privacy advocates have spent the past two years trying to answer that question, digging up scraps of information on a controversial police technology called the automated licence plate recognition system.

“We have been stymied at every level,” said Chris Parsons, a University of Victoria PhD candidate specializing in privacy issues.

The device uses police cruiser-mounted cameras to automatically capture up to 3,000 licence plates per hour. It then notifies officers of a “hit” on uninsured and prohibited owners, as well as stolen vehicles.

The technology is used throughout British Columbia and is administered by the RCMP. In Greater Victoria, VicPD, Saanich police and the Integrated Road Safety Unit use it regularly.

What makes the program so concerning is critics say data collected from “non-hit” vehicles is kept on encrypted RCMP servers for two years. Although it’s not used, the information could be referenced for investigative purposes to retrace vehicle movements.

The RCMP insists such actions are not taking place, but the Mountie in charge of the program, Supt. Denis Boucher, said his office is considering expanding the program.

“It’s called function creep,” Parsons said. “That means every citizen that drives, (police) want to be able to track who they are and where they’re at.”

Parsons said the information is already being cross-referenced with child custody and other court records unrelated to driving infractions, but Boucher denies this.

“It doesn’t flag somebody simply because he’s got a criminal record,” Boucher said. “These are for hits where we have outstanding action to be taken against an individual.”

To resolve these concerns, Parsons and fellow researchers Bruce Wipond and Kevin McArthur submitted their findings to B.C.’s Office of the  Information and Privacy Commissioner, which set in motion an investigation into VicPD’s use of the technology.

Because the RCMP is outside of provincial jurisdiction, commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation is limited in scope to municipal police services.

“The investigation will look at general questions like what kind of information (VicPD) are collecting, how are they using it, is it retained or disclosed to anybody?” said Cara McGregor, privacy commissioner spokesperson.

Saanich police purchased a plate reader of its own this year and it has been in operation for a couple months.

Sgt. Dean Jantzen said the device has “proven its worth” in the time it’s been in operation. “It generates a lot of activity for our traffic safety officers,” he said.

Jantzen, though not trained on the machine, reaffirmed that “non-hit” data is never used.

“As long as you’re not a suspended driver, that your licence is in good standing, that you have valid insurance, there’s no reason you’ll ever come into conflict with this device,” he said.

Denham’s report is due to be published next month and will be the first privacy review of the technology in Canada.

In a statement, VicPD Chief Const. Jamie Graham said Automated Licence Plate Recognition is an “incredibly important application that directly contributes to improved road safety.”

VicPD, which began using the program in March 2011, is co-operating with the investigation and has developed internal policies to govern the use of the device, department spokesman Mike Tucker said.

– with files from Kyle Slavin and Jeff Nagel

dpalmer@vicnews.com

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