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British Columbia's Privacy Commissioner is investigating a licence-plate-scanning technology that civil-liberties advocates say is an ominous step toward unregulated surveillance in the province.

The automated licence plate recognition technology was introduced in B.C. in 2006 as a pilot project, with the goal of combating auto theft and motor vehicle violations. Currently being used in Vancouver, Victoria, Saanich and Abbotsford, ALPR uses infrared cameras mounted on top of marked and unmarked police vehicles to scan up to 3,000 plates an hour, helping authorities crack down on motor vehicle offenders and other criminals on provincial and federal "hot lists," police say.

But the cameras also log the information of people only peripherally on the legal radar – such as those who have been accused of, but not charged in, criminal activity – and essentially create a database of people's movements, say civil liberties advocates and privacy watchdogs.

Commissioner Elizabeth Denham's investigation was prompted by a written submission from "several individuals" who had concerns with the technology, said Cara McGregor, spokeswoman for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. The investigation will focus on the use of ALPR by the Victoria police, but the published report – expected to be out later this summer – will provide guidance to law enforcement agencies across the province.

There are currently seven units comprising a total of more than 40 cameras in the four pilot cities, said Superintendent Denis Boucher, officer in charge of RCMP E-Division traffic services.

Using infrared cameras mounted on top of marked and unmarked police vehicles, ALPR scans the plates of parked and moving vehicles, registering "hits" – records for which come from the Canadian Police Information Centre and the Insurance Corporation of B.C. – on a screen inside the police vehicle.

Police say these records include prohibited, suspended and unlicensed drivers. Sex offenders, known criminals and child abductors – suspects named in an Amber Alerts, for example – also pop up. The system records licence plate numbers, where the vehicle was located, the type of hit recorded and the resulting action taken.

Privacy watchdogs have expressed concern from the beginning. The exact criteria that lands one on the hot list is ambiguous, they say, and the fact that people who have even been accused of a crime can end up on it is troubling.

"Originally, we were told this was going to be about stolen vehicles and things like kidnapping – things that are, if you will, obvious," said Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "Our understanding of what is actually happening, in terms of what generates a hit, is that it is massive: simple things like parole, probation, if you've even been accused of breaking a criminal law."

There is also the issue of data retention: "Simply put, gathering all of that data of what licence plates appear where [creates] a massive map of location data," Ms. Vonn said. "Our understanding … is that the data is being retained for months or years. This, essentially, is a huge database of people's movements."

Rob Wipond, a Victoria-based freelance journalist who has researched the matter for almost two years, calls the technology "the beginning of a wave of unregulated surveillance."

"You've just got to ask yourself: Are you really sure that there's absolutely nowhere you go in your day, ever, that you don't want everyone to know?" he asked. "Because that's what it comes down to. You don't know who's going to have this information and how it's going to be used."

Mr. Wipond says his research has shown that someone who has attended court to establish legal custody of his or her child, or someone who's had an incident due to a mental-health problem for which police have attended, would register as a hit.

He says such a database also lays the foundation for risk profiling. As an example, he points to Britain, where authorities have used the same technology to log the whereabouts of protesters, at times intercepting them en route to demonstrations. "We know it's been used in that way. Is that something we're comfortable with, as Canadians?"

The investigation comes as provincial RCMP mull the retention of data of motorists not on the hot list, Supt. Boucher said.

"Right now, there is no information on the collection of those licence plates that are non-hits," he said. "We are considering what to do with that data. We are considering whether or not we should be keeping that data, or purging it like we do now."