Victoria police must change use of technology, says privacy commissioner
Big Brother is watching himself this week, as B.C.’s privacy commissioner has announced that police must make changes to licence plate scanning technology, thanks to the urging of three citizens.
Commissioner Elizabeth Denham made the announcement Nov. 15 following an investigation launched in July to examine how the Victoria Police Department was utilizing Automated Licence Plate Recognition technology (ALPR).
“We had to pull back the curtain to see how this really works,” says Denham. “What’s wrong is that this information is obtained at all. Non-hit data should be deleted right away … if people have done nothing wrong, they should not be subject to this suspicion.”
Currently, VicPD uses cameras mounted to squad cars to photograph, scan and record licence plate numbers, including time and geographic location. The ALPR system compares this data to an on-board database of plate numbers provided by the RCMP called an “alert listing.” A “hit” occurs when a match between a licence plate and the alert is found. If there is no match, the item is categorized as a “non-hit” — but that’s where the technology should stop, says Denham.
The violation occurs when a “daily scan” record is returned to the RCMP, which contains the personal information of every registered owner of a vehicle scanned by the ALPR system. This record contains information related both to hits and non-hits. The RCMP’s current practice is to de-identify non-hit data, but Denham concluded that even the disclosure of non-hit data to the RCMP is not authorized by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
Her recommendations state that the ALPR system be reconfigured to delete non-hit data immediately, and that future use or disclosure of non-hit data by municipal police is not authorized under B.C. law.
“There is an important principal at stake here. As a society we decided a long time ago what information was appropriate for release and what was not. This technology could expose where a person was parked for example, at what time, and associations could be made about that person,” says Denham. “Let’s remove the temptation that this data may be used. If there is no match, it must be deleted immediately.”
However, VicPD Chief Constable Jamie Graham says he “respectfully disagrees” with the commissioner’s findings around the use of the technology.
“VicPD appreciates and values the commissioner’s role in assessing the privacy impact that law enforcement tools have on the community. However, the department respectfully disagrees with certain elements of the commissioner’s characterization of how the ALPR program functions,” Graham said in a release. “For example, VicPD does not make known or reveal any ‘non-hit’ data at any time. This data is transferred to the RCMP for the sole purpose of its destruction.”
VicPD has no statement yet on whether or how the force will adapt practices to comply with Denham’s recommendations, though Graham also emphasizes the value of ALPR since it came into practice in 2006, and says recent deployments of the technology resulted in the detection of a volume of violations that often exceeded officers’ ability to keep up.
“Like many police agencies in B.C., VicPD uses ALPR technology to assist our officers with maintaining public safety. This technology is especially helpful in detecting prohibited drivers, uninsured vehicles and invalid licence plates,” he says. “Considering the potential impact that a single uninsured driver can have on public safety, the operational deployment of this system has paid tremendous dividends to the communities of Victoria and Esquimalt.”
Denham doesn’t disagree about the technology’s usefulness. However, she says these tools must comply with FIPPA. Current concerns that this technology could be used as a surveillance tool is valid, she says, where data may be accessed for purposes other than that for which it was collected. And Denham does have enforcement power — though she adds it’s always best when public bodies volunteer to comply.
“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. This information is not serving a law enforcement purpose and, therefore, VicPD cannot disclose it to the RCMP,” she says.
The commissioner’s investigation was prompted, in part, by a written submission from three individuals who expressed concern about police use of ALPR in B.C. and its potential use as a tracking tool. The commissioner’s report, directed at VicPD, will act as a blueprint for all policing agencies in B.C.
“Law enforcement agencies have recently discussed retaining non-hit data. Collecting personal information for traffic enforcement and identifying stolen vehicles does not extend to retaining data on the law-abiding activities of citizens just in case it may be useful in the future,” says Denham. “If anything, this case should show that citizens can make a difference.” M