Victoria researchers’ work prompts VicPD privacy investigation

Use of licence plate scanning technology questioned

Saanich police traffic safety unit member Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader

Saanich police traffic safety unit member Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ron Sivorot, business director at Kennametal’s Langford site, the Greater Victoria facility that made a component being used on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. (Jake Romphf, Black Press Media)
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover using piece made at Kennametal’s Langford site

The Greater Victoria plant’s tooth blank is helping the rover’s drill collect rock cores

A provincially appointed consultant has recommended a change to the funding formula for the VicPD that will save Esquimalt a significant amount of money. (Black Press Media file photo)
Esquimalt to save a bundle on policing costs under new formula

Provincial consultant studied funding model, resource deployment for VicPD

A rockfall closed Finlayson Arm Road and West Shore Parkway on Friday (March 5) afternoon. (Twitter/BC Transportation)
UPDATED: Malahat reopens following rockfall

Section of Trans-Canada Highway was scheduled for intermittent closures today for rock scaling work

A Victoria resident was scammed out of $1,700 after a fraudster impersonated a police officer and convinced the victim to pay a non-existent fine in Bitcoin. (Unsplash)
Fraudster impersonates Victoria police officer, steals $1,700 in Bitcoin

Phone call showed up as VicPD’s non-emergency line

The Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tsartlip First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA revealed COVID-19 outbreak

Chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA Adam Olsen apologizes

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

Most Read