The Week — Aug. 1: Privacy win for drivers

Drivers score potential win for privacy against automated licence plate recognition technology, while police say happy birthday to Victoria

B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham will be investigating exactly how VicPD has been using automated licence plate recognition technology.

Privacy win for drivers

Victorians could be seeing a breakthrough in privacy soon, thanks to our favourite provincial Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who will be turning her eyes to a matter that has irked residents for seven years now: automated licence plate recognition (ALPR) technology.

The commissioner launched the investigation Monday, July 30, after receiving a submission from three independent researchers who used access-to-information laws to investigate B.C. police ALPR programs, and shared their findings.

“Our focus is looking at the Victoria Police Department’s use of the technology to see whether or not it is compliant with privacy laws in B.C.,” says Cara McGregor, spokesperson for the Office of the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner. “While we are focusing on one particular case, the report is meant to give guidance to all police departments in B.C.”

ALPR technology allows for the automated collection of photographs of vehicles and licence plates by cameras mounted on police cars, which are then compared to a list of licence plate numbers associated with individuals who are of interest to police. The program instantly notifies police when there is a match. Since 2005, the RCMP and a growing number of municipal and regional police forces in B.C. (including VicPD) have been using the cruiser-mounted automated camera systems.

“Tracking the movements of innocent drivers represents a serious threat to Canadian privacy rights — rights which are essential for our freedom of expression and association,” says technical security specialist and digital rights activist Kevin McArthur, one of the three people involved in the submission to the commissioner. “When combined with new federal and provincial laws expanding other types of secret digital surveillance and information gathering, the dangers are all the more heightened. So this review could not be more timely.”

Specifically, Denham’s report will look into the type of information VicPD collects with the technology, how that information is used and how long it is retained. The report is scheduled to be released later this summer.

“This is an incredibly important application that directly contributes to improved road safety,” says VicPD Chief Constable Jamie Graham.  “For example, ALPR can help officers stop prohibited drivers, drivers without insurance and recover stolen vehicles.”

VicPD says it has been in full cooperation with the commissioner’s office, and added that it has developed its own policies and procedures to govern the use of this technology, ensuring that it complies with all relevant legislation.

“If VicPD is in compliance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, that will be released. If they are not, the onus will on them to make sure they are,” says McGregor. “We will also be looking at what other guidance can be given on how this type of technology is used.”

The commissioner also announced a second investigation to focus on the public interest disclosure section of the act, which requires public bodies to disclose certain information, such as environmental harms or public risks to health and safety. A research report from UVic’s Environmental Law Clinic prompted the investigation, by examining the extent to which a number of public bodies are complying with that section of the act.

Happy Birthday, says police

Speaking of VicPD, what better time to consider the force than in celebration of the city’s next mass-populace celebration: the sesquicentennial party?

As thousands (or at least hundreds) of expected party-goers parade the streets this Thursday, Aug. 2, VicPD has announced it will take part in the celebrations at Centennial Square by setting up a display illustrating the department’s “deep roots” in the community and how policing has evolved since the department was founded in 1858.

From noon to 6pm, along with all the other festivities, vintage cop cars will be on display, including a 1921 patrol wagon and “Car 40” (a restored 1940 Dodge), along with artifacts from the Victoria Police Historical Society Museum.

Modern wheels, including a VicPD Charger patrol car and a new Victory motorcycle, will also be featured, and are guaranteed not to chase you. M

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