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Mounties could track clean B.C. drivers

Aug 01 2012

Thousands of British Columbians could be tracked by police without their knowledge as part of an expanded mass surveillance system being considered by the RCMP.

The Mounties said they would decide within the next two or three months whether to dramatically expand their automated licence-plate recognition system.

Currently, cameras mounted on 43 police vehicles throughout the province record 3,000 licence plates an hour, but only keep the information on drivers the computer flags as having such things as outstanding warrants, dangerous criminal histories or expired insurance.

The "non-hit" data on clean drivers is deleted by RCMP computer servers each day, say the Mounties.

However, the RCMP is considering keeping that data, which would essentially compile a list of times and locations of thousands of B.C. drivers who have done nothing other than pass in front of an automated police camera.

Investigators across B.C. could use that list as a tracking tool.

"It can be used to either validate an alibi, or it can be used to find information on a suspect," said Supt.

Denis Boucher, head of the provincial E-Division traffic services.

For example, Boucher said, the list could help to check the whereabouts of suspects.

"We're interviewing a suspect in a homicide and he says, 'I was nowhere near that crime scene,' and we run his plate and lo and behold, we have a picture of him two blocks from a crime scene," he said.

The changes would also affect drivers in Saanich, Victoria and throughout the capital region, where police departments with existing licence-plate camera systems follow RCMP policies.

The RCMP will consult with the federal and provincial privacy commissioners before deciding whether to proceed, Boucher said.

B.C.'s privacy commissioner announced this week that she was investigating the licence-plate system to see whether it complies with the province's privacy law.

Privacy advocates are aghast at the idea of a catch-all surveillance system, saying police don't have the right - or the authority under the law - to compile a database of people's personal information and previous locations without a warrant.

"We're talking about a very pervasive swath of the population that may be under this surveillance and may never know," said Christopher Parsons, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria who was part of a research team that sparked the privacy commissioner's investigation.

The accuracy rate of the cameras is as low as 60 per cent, Parsons said, but the public is unable to know when they have been logged by the police system or to correct any errors.

"This is an absolutely mammoth problem," said Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who described the expanded system as "unjustifiable."

"This is all about the pre-crime mentality of why wouldn't we just allow broad-based, dragnet population surveillance, in case something goes wrong?" she said. "That is clearly the danger we're trying to stave off."

B.C.'s Justice Ministry said in a statement that any changes to the licence plate program must be reviewed first by federal and provincial privacy commissioners.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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