Category Archives: Technology Privacy Surveillance

Vancouver’s closed-circuit TV public-surveillance system guidelines contradict privacy pledge

City told B.C. government closed-circuit television images wouldn’t be stored, but the policy shows this isn’t the case.

The City of Vancouver got a $400,000 provincial government grant to expand its closed-circuit television (CCTV) public-surveillance system—then ignored the commitments it made to protect citizens’ privacy. At least, that’s what’s suggested by two seemingly contradictory documents recently obtained by the Georgia Straight through freedom-of-information requests: the city’s CCTV privacy-impact assessment and its CCTV policy guidelines.  Read more in Georgia Straight.

What the Privacy Commissioner Really Said

My article last month on police automatic licence plate recognition programs in BC has been read online by over 17,000 people after being featured in slashdot and elsewhere. This month I follow up with an article that recaps what happened at the Reboot Privacy and Security Conference when my co-researcher Christopher Parsons sat on a panel with Victoria Chief of Police Jamie Graham, and then I went to ask Graham a question and… It also recounts our stunning new findings: What the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada really said about the program. Indeed, you can read the full text of the OPC’s letters to the RCMP about the ALPR program yourself right here.

Privacy Commissioner Slams BC Surveillance Program

Documents suggest BC Solicitors General and the RCMP have been misleading the public for years.

“THERE’S NOTHING, in my view, to be alarmed about,” said Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham. He was speaking at February’s Reboot Privacy and Security Conference in Victoria, to 200 privacy experts, academics, and government and corporate executives from around North America, including Alberta Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton and BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Graham was on a panel with Christopher Parsons, a UVic PhD candidate in political science and surveillance studies. Parsons was presenting findings from research done by him, me and tech expert and civil rights advocate Kevin McArthur into Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (findings first revealed in February’s Focus, “Hidden Surveillance”).

Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) involves equipping police cruisers with cameras and software that can read thousands of licence plates per hour and compare those plates to crime “hot lists.” The program operates as a joint effort between the RCMP, BC government and local BC police forces, ostensibly to primarily catch stolen vehicles, unlicensed drivers, and prohibited drivers.

Click here to read the rest of the article in the March issue of Focus.

Hidden Surveillance

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.

Clicke here to read the rest of this article in the February, 2012 issue of Focus magazine.

RCMP & VicPD ALPR Documents Released

My article “Hidden Surveillance”, which investigates the RCMP and Victoria Police Department’s Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) program, has been released in the February issue of Focus magazine and is now available online here. My thanks to Kevin McArthur of Stormtide and Unrest.ca, Christopher Parsons, along with Kris Constable of PrivaSecTech and everyone at IdeasMeetings for their help, interest, perspectives and encouragement along the way. As a supplement to the article, below are documents attained so far from my provincial Freedom of Information and federal Access to Information requests. (In the U.K., such programs are often called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR.)

The RCMP Privacy Impact Assessment (October 2009) for its Automatic Licence Plate Recognition program. (A new PIA is apparently at the draft stage as of January 2012).

Victoria Police Department correspondence and other records on its ALPR program: Pages 1-31. Pages 32-55. Pages 56-101.

The 2011 Letter of Agreement, Terms and Conditions for ALPR use between the RCMP and other police agencies (two pages).

A one-page spreadsheet from the RCMP summarizing police actions taken in response to ALPR hits throughout BC from 2007-2011.

For serious researchers, here are the detailed ALPR hit logs from the Victoria Police Department: June-July 2010. July-October 2010. November-December 2010. January-February 2011. February-May 2011. May-September 2011.