Privacy watchdog concerned with licence plate scanners used by Victoria police
Jul 31 2012
B.C.’s privacy watchdog has launched an investigation into whether the Victoria Police Department is breaking the law by automatically recording vehicle license plates.
Information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s office said Monday that concerns about the implications of widespread police surveillance technology have prompted her to launch the review, which should be complete later this summer.
“There will be some discussion of what kind of information is being collected, how it is being used, is it being disclosed to anybody or any other agencies, how long is it being retained, these are the kind of questions the investigation will examine,” said Cara McGregor, a spokeswoman in Denham’s office.
The automated license plate recognition system consists of a camera mounted to a police vehicle, capable of recording 3,000 license plates per hour. Those plates are automatically run through ICBC and police databases, instantly flagging drivers with outstanding warrants and insurance infractions. Police say it’s a valuable safety tool.
Several local police agencies, such as the Saanich Police Department and the Capital Region Integrated Road Safety Unit already use the system. There are 43 camera-equipped vehicles in the province. Denham’s report will focus on VicPD but contain recommendations for other departments, said McGregor.
The investigation was prompted by a letter to Denham from three Victoria researchers — Rob Wipond, Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur — who have spent two years fighting for information about the license plate program from VicPD and the RCMP.
“This is a very dangerous tool we have given our police forces,” said Wipond, a journalist who has catalogued hundreds of pages of data on his website www.robwipond.com.
“It’s a mass population surveillance tool that has extraordinary capacity for abuse.”
Key to the group’s concern is what happens to the information captured about drivers who are captured by the system but have done nothing wrong.
“We’re talking about a very pervasive swath of the population that may be under this surveillance and may never know,” said Parsons, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria.
Currently, that “non-hit” data on clean drivers is deleted every day, said Supt. Denis Boucher, who runs the license plate recognition program as head of RCMP E-Division traffic services.
But the RCMP is considering keeping the data on ordinary people, so that it can log the time and location of thousands of British Columbians and their vehicles.
“It can be used to either validate an alibi, or it can be used to find information on a suspect,” said Boucher.
The RCMP will decide if it wants to proceed with the expansion in the next two or three months, he said.
“We have to seek the advice of the privacy commissioner on those types of things, and we will,” said Boucher.
The RCMP administers the license plate recognition program for B.C. police forces, causing further confusion over whether the Mountie-run systems fall under B.C. privacy laws or report only to the federal privacy commissioner.
VicPD chief Jamie Graham said in a statement that the system is “an incredibly important application that directly contributes to improved road safety.”
VicPD also said it’s developed policies to ensure it complies with privacy legislation, but wouldn’t provide a copy of those policies when asked Monday.
B.C.’s Justice Ministry said any changes to how police departments use the license plate technology need to be reviewed by the provincial and federal privacy commissioners.