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Police policy on cameras lacks detail, critics say

Aug 10 2012

Critics are chastising the Victoria Police Department for claiming its policy on automated licence-plate cameras follows the law, when it's actually bereft of details, fails to reference any legislation, and simply promises to mirror whatever the RCMP decides.

VicPD is under investigation by B.C.'s privacy commissioner for whether its automated licence-plate recognition cameras, which scan and record 3,000 vehicle plates per hour, comply with provincial privacy law.

Those cameras are part of a provincewide program used by numerous municipal police forces, including Victoria and Saanich police, but overseen by the RCMP.

"While the ALPR program is administered by the RCMP, VicPD has developed its own policies and procedures to govern the use of this technology, ensuring that it complies with all relevant legislation," the police force said in a recent public statement given in response to the investigation.

But the department's actual policy, obtained by the Times Colonist, makes no mention of federal or provincial legislation of any kind.

It also doesn't address privacy concerns - the word privacy does not appear once in the two-page document.

The policy refers almost all matters back to the RCMP. "The Department will comply with RCMP policy related to the ALPR program," it reads.

The RCMP has been the subject of criticism by the federal privacy commissioner for its policy, according to work done by three Victoria researchers whose findings prompted the B.C. privacy commissioner's review.

Privacy advocates say VicPD is trying to pass off responsibility.

"It's more like an instruction manual than any kind of privacy policy," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C.

Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

"I don't know how you can say it complies with relevant legislation when the most obvious piece of legislation, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, you have to use all kinds of guesswork to figure out what they're talking about."

Particularly telling is that VicPD didn't point to any section of any existing law, nor did it refer to its obligations under B.C.'s privacy act for collection, retention and disclosure of people's personal information, Gogolek said.

"It's basically a big finger that points at some other policy," said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

A key issue - whether police are capturing people's personal information - isn't even addressed, she said.

"In terms of assessing the legality of this, it really does turn on the sense of the magic words, personal information," Vonn said. "I don't see how you can say you've looked at this in terms of the law if there's no signs you've grappled with that very fundamental issue."

Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham is also under fire from privacy advocates for saying he'd like to retain the data the cameras capture on drivers who have done nothing wrong.

The RCMP says such "non-hit" data is deleted each day, though the Mounties have said they are considering archiving it so they can check people's locations in the future if they are accused of a crime.

B.C.'s privacy commissioner is expected to complete the VicPD review this summer.

The police department refused to comment on its policy.

rshaw@timescolonist.com kderosa@timescolonist.com

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