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Elizabeth Denham, shown in Ottawa before becoming B.C.’s privacy commissioner. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Elizabeth Denham, shown in Ottawa before becoming B.C.’s privacy commissioner. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Law Enforcement

Licence plate scanners raise privacy concerns Add to ...

The Victoria Police Department must make changes to its licence-plate-scanning technology to comply with privacy laws, says British Columbia’s privacy commissioner.

Elizabeth Denham launched her investigation of Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology in July after receiving a written submission from three people who had concerns about it. Civil liberties advocates have said it essentially creates a database of people’s movements and is an ominous step toward unregulated surveillance in B.C.

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On Thursday, Ms. Denham said several changes have to be made. Most notably, personal information obtained from licence plates that do not draw any matches in the on-board database provided by the RCMP must be deleted immediately, she said. Currently, a “daily scan record” containing the personal information of every registered owner of a vehicle whose licence plate was scanned is returned to the RCMP at the end of each shift. The RCMP then delete those that yield no matches, called “non-hits.”

“Non-hit data is personal information about the suspicionless activities of citizens – information that the police have no reason to believe relates to criminal activity,” Ms. Denham said in a statement. “This information is not serving a law enforcement purpose, and therefore [Victoria police] cannot disclose it to the RCMP.”

ALPR technology was introduced in B.C. six years ago with the goal of combating auto theft and motor vehicle violations. Using infrared cameras mounted on top of police vehicles, the technology can scan as many as 3,000 plates an hour, alerting the officer if the plate of a nearby car matches one in the police database. Since its introduction, police have also lauded its potential to quickly scan for criminals in urgent scenarios – kidnappings, for example – and verify alibis of suspects. Victoria police began using the technology in March.

In a statement issued shortly after the release of Ms. Denham’s report, Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham said he “appreciates and values the commissioner’s role in assessing the privacy impact that law enforcement tools have on the community,” but the department “respectfully disagrees” with certain elements of her characterization of how the program works.

“For example, [the Victoria Police Department] does not make known or reveal any non-hit data at any time,” Chief Graham said. “This data is transferred to the RCMP for the sole purpose of its destruction.”

Victoria police spokesman Constable Mike Russell elaborated, saying the data is on an encrypted device that can only be destroyed by RCMP members who run the ALPR program. When asked if it would be possible for the device to be configured so it automatically deletes non-hits, as Ms. Denham recommended in her report, Mr. Russell said the department would have to look into it.

Chief Graham did not specify which other elements of the report the department disagreed with and was not available for an interview Thursday.

Ms. Denham’s report focuses on the Victoria Police Department, as it was mentioned specifically in the written submission by the three concerned individuals. But her findings are to serve as a guide for all B.C. police forces that are using, or considering using, the technology. While the report contains recommendations, the commissioner does have the power to order public bodies to comply.

Asked by reporters about the issue in Victoria Thursday, Justice Minister and Attorney-General Shirley Bond said she is reviewing the recommendations.

“Technology is useful when we’re trying to get bad drivers off the road, but we also have to make sure we are looking at the issue of protecting people’s privacy,” she said.

Ms. Bond said she does not support the RCMP using the data collected for any other purpose. “I don't support, without proper and appropriate protections in place, the expansion of the use of the technology,” she said. “We’ve been clear about this: This technology is to take bad drivers off the road.”

With a report from Justine Hunter

Follow on Twitter: @andreawoo

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