Depending what side of the fence you sit on, automatic licence plate readers are either another step closer to a Big Brother surveillance society, or a needed piece of technology police can use to nab car thieves and bad drivers.
Either way, it is a good decision by B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to try and shed light on how licence plate readers work, what data is collected and how it is used.
Victoria and Saanich police departments and the regional Integrated Road Safety Unit each use a high-tech, high-speed camera which can read thousands of plates per hour and match them against those from stolen and uninsured vehicles, and help identify people without valid licences or those who are prohibited from driving – collectively known by police as “hits.”
The Victoria and Saanich police insist they don’t amass and store gigabytes of licence plate image data. That much is true – it’s all passed on to the RCMP, which administers and oversees the licence reader program. All the data is stored on RCMP servers, hits and non-hits alike. RCMP bosses indicate the program could be expanded to help police conducting serious crimes investigations.
Victoria-based critics say the plate-scanning program has veered far outside its original mandate to efficiently find bad drivers, and is headed into mass population surveillance, or surveilling known activists.
This suggestion seems like conspiracy theory, but it is a fair question to ask how much surveillance people should be subjected to, what data is being collected and kept and how it’s being stored.
On days the readers are in use, Saanich and Victoria police officers retrieve an encrypted memory stick from the RCMP with flagged drivers’ plate numbers, which is plugged into the system. At the end of the shift, the collected data and encrypted database is returned to the RCMP.
Hopefully the B.C. privacy commissioner can offer suggestions to balance the tension between privacy rights and law enforcement. But that investigation likely won’t be able to probe the most troubling aspect of the automatic licence plate reading program – the collection and storage by the RCMP of the locations and movements of innocent people going about their daily lives.
The federal privacy watchdog needs to investigate what the RCMP is doing with this data. Police should have their tools, but civil rights shouldn’t be thrown under the bus.