Not many people know that local Victoria, BC police and the RCMP have already begun building a massive public traffic surveillance system. And no one knows how they’re going to use it.
The A News reporter and Nanaimo constable interwove: “amazing,” “blown away,” “overwhelming.” “This will revolutionize the way we police,” proclaimed Vancouver police in The Province.
Both media and police across North America have engaged in such trumpeting about Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR). The RCMP and BC government piloted ALPR in 2006 and have expanded it rapidly. BC now has 42 police cruisers equipped with the technology, including one with the Victoria Police Department (VicPD), one in Saanich, and two in our regional Integrated Road Safety Unit.
Normally, area police manually key in plate numbers to check suspicious cars in the databases of the Canadian Police Information Centre and ICBC. With ALPR, for $27,000, a police cruiser is mounted with two cameras and software that can read licence plates on both passing and stationary cars. According to the vendors, thousands of plates can be read hourly with 95-98 percent accuracy. These plate numbers are automatically compared for “hits” against ICBC and Canadian Police Information Centre “hot lists” of stolen vehicles; prohibited, unlicensed and uninsured drivers; and missing children. When such “hits” occur, plate photos are automatically stamped with time, date, and GPS coordinates, and stored. The officer will investigate details in the above-mentioned databases directly, and may pull over suspect vehicles.
At least, that’s how the popular story goes, and it sounds wonderful. However, some news stories have quoted academics or civil rights advocates worried about what else this plate recognition technology is, or could be, used for. ALPR was developed by the British government in the 1990s to track movements of the Irish Republican Army. By 2007, the International Association of Police Chiefs was issuing a resolution calling for “all countries” to begin using ALPR and sharing population surveillance data for fighting gangs and terrorism. Today in the UK, ALPR is used for charging tolls, “risk profiling” travellers, and tracking or intercepting people using cars photographed near protests.
But most Canadians’ concerns have been assuaged with statements like that in a Times Colonist article: “Both federal and provincial privacy commissioners have approved the system, which must comply with federal privacy legislation, said [RCMP Sgt. Warren] Nelson.”
Yet no one in Canada has actually investigated either police claims or the complaints.
That lack motivated me, along with Christopher Parsons, a University of Victoria PhD candidate in privacy and surveillance studies, and Kevin McArthur, a web architecture developer and high-tech civil rights advocate, to form a research team.
Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s office gave us our first shock of many.