News Views: Picture of Privacy

Privacy commissioner trying to find limits as police scan plates

B.C.’s Privacy Commissioner is examining the use of cruiser-mounted cameras by police to scan licence plates from passing vehicles.

Critics have objected, citing privacy concerns, that the RCMP and other forces are using the plate-scanning technology for purposes beyond the original intent.

The camera-equipped police cars scan passing or parked vehicle plates against ICBC and national police databases. Police instantly see if a car is stolen or uninsured – or if the probable driver is unlicensed, prohibited from driving, wanted by police or accused of a crime. Each time a flagged vehicle is detected, its time and location are recorded and kept for two years.

Rob Wipond, one of three independent researchers whose work prompted the privacy investigation, said the criteria for generating actionable hits has crept from traffic violations to data like whether you’ve ever gone to court to seek child custody or had a mental health episode that involved police.

That might seem laudable when it helps police find an abduction victim, solve a murder or keep sex offenders from parking outside schools. But Wipond envisions British-style uses, like recording the licence plates of vehicles coming to a lawful demonstration, then using ALPR to detect, intercept and slow the same protesters headed to future gatherings. Wipond theorizes police algorithms could one day decide that because someone went to a suspicious location, they should be flagged for closer scrutiny in the future – data that might result in them not being allowed to fly or cross borders. Would you be comfortable being tracked all the time? Would if affect your sense of freedom?

Police maintain that the cameras are an enforcement, not intelligence-gathering tool, that the program doesn’t flag somebody simply because he’s got a criminal record. But RCMP are considering keeping all plate recognition data for every vehicle the system identifies on the road – not just the actionable hits. And given the program has morphed from tracking stolen cars to tracking a broader set of targets, it’s fair to ask, what next?

That’s what the Privacy Commissioner is investigating, to determine a threshold for our eroding privacy.  Licence plate numbers are already publicly visible with no expectation of privacy, but the data collecting program, good or bad, goes far beyond that. Tracking kidnappers is one thing, but routine traffic checks for accused drunk drivers is another.

We need to determine a fair and proportionate use for the technology, how to apply it while still respecting one’s right to privacy.

– The News