RCMP Const. Dave Babineau with an Automated Licence Plate Recognition system mounted atop an RCMP cruiser. Cameras record the plates of passing vehicles both in front and behind the police car.

Police licence plate cameras face privacy probe

Critics see slippery slope to unjustified surveillance

B.C.’s Privacy Commissioner will probe the use by municipal police of cruiser-mounted cameras that rapidly scan thousands of licence plates from passing vehicles into a database after critics raised objections.

Elizabeth Denham said her investigation of the Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) system is already underway.

Civil libertarians are applauding the announcement, arguing the RCMP and other forces are using the plate-scanning technology for purposes beyond the original intent.

The 43 camera-equipped police cars in the province scan passing or parked vehicle plates against ICBC and national police databases.

Police instantly see if a car is stolen or uninsured – or if the probable driver is unlicensed, prohibited from driving, wanted by police or accused of a crime.

Each time a flagged vehicle is detected, its time and location is recorded and kept for two years.

Rob Wipond, one of three independent researchers whose work convinced Denham to act, welcomes the investigation.

“This thing has been operating for years without any kind of independent oversight,” he said. “We’re talking about mass population surveillance.”

Wipond said the criteria for generating actionable hits has expanded from traffic violations to data like whether you’ve ever gone to court to seek child custody or had a mental health episode that involved police.

The result, he said, is a disturbing map of the movements of myriad suspect vehicles that can be traced back two years.

That might seem laudable when it helps police find an abduction victim, solve a murder or keep sex offenders from parking outside schools.

But Wipond envisions British-style uses, like recording the licence plates of vehicles coming to a lawful demonstration and then using ALPR to detect, intercept and slow the same protesters headed to future gatherings.

Taken to extremes, critics argue, authorities could use ALPR to track where union leaders, protest organizers and journalists go and who they meet.

Washington DC uses stationary ALPR cameras that form a grid that captures most vehicle movements for scrutiny.

Wipond theorizes police algorithms could one day decide that because someone went to a suspicious location, they should be flagged for closer scrutiny in the future – data that might result in them not being allowed to fly or cross borders.

“The public needs to think about this more,” he said. “Am I comfortable being tracked all the time, being surveilled all the time? How does this change me and my sense of freedom in my daily life?”

RCMP E Division Traffic Services Supt. Denis Boucher said ALPR isn’t used to record suspect vehicles for future tracking.

“Anybody can speculate,” he said. “But it isn’t used as an intelligence-gathering tool. It’s used as an enforcement tool.”

He said police couldn’t use it to collect data on vehicles arriving at a Hells Angels clubhouse – or a protest.

He also denied Wipond’s suggestion a mental health incident several years old could result in someone’s plate being flagged today, adding that information is generally removed from the federal policing database.

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

But Boucher said RCMP are considering keeping all plate recognition data for every vehicle ALPR identifies on the road – not just the actionable hits.

A check of non-hit ALPR data might be able to show whether a suspect’s vehicle was or wasn’t near the scene of a crime, he said.

“There are all kinds of ramifications,” Boucher said. “We’re not quite there yet as to whether we want to go down that road.”

He said the pilot program, launched more than five years ago mainly to find stolen cars, “morphed” over time into tracking a broader set of targets because car theft alone wasn’t enough to justify its use.

“There was value in identifying other infractions,” he said. “That’s how it’s snowballed into where it is today.”

He denied there is any interest in using the licence plate data of existing stationary cameras from ICBC’s 140 red light cameras or ones that electronically collect tolls on the Golden Ears and new Port Mann bridges.

“We’ve got enough dealing with the moving ones.”

Michael Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is skeptical the program won’t expand further given the “function creep” seen so far.

Your licence plate number is publicly visible with no expectation of privacy, but she said an ALPR system coupled with a database that archives detected locations is a profound change.

“The community will have to decide if funneling every person that you pass on the street into a database is law enforcement,” Vonn said. “You don’t have to identify yourself on the street. This is a technological means by which we are not only identifying but screening.”

Denham has no jurisdiction over the RCMP so her probe’s focus is on the Victoria Police but expects her findings to relate to other municipal forces.

Boucher said his office is already working with Denham because RCMP servers store the data.

Photo above right: Rob Wipond

 

ALPR-EQUIPPED POLICE CARS

Vancouver Police – 4

Abbotsford, Victoria and Saanich municipal police – one each

Lower Mainland District RCMP – 9

Vancouver Island RCMP – 9

Southeast B.C. RCMP – 10

North District RCMP – 5

RCMP E Division headquarters – 3

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