ICBC wrong to offer police use of photo database

Agency was ready to lend use of its facial recognition system in hunt for rioters

B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has ruled ICBC was wrong to offer to let Vancouver Police use its photo database of all B.C. drivers to identify suspected Stanley Cup rioters.

Elizabeth Denham found the public auto insurer should no longer make such offers to police or respond to requests to use its facial recognition software unless required to do so through a subpoena, warrant or court order.

ICBC made the offer last summer to feed images of suspected rioters police were obtaining into the database to help them find matches and identities.

No such help was actually provided, because the commissioner’s office had quickly stepped in and the VPD never sought access via the courts.

“Great care must be taken in evaluating proposed changes in use,” Denham’s report said.

She recommends ICBC do more to inform customers about its system and that senior executives take steps to “foster a culture of privacy” within ICBC.

Denham upheld ICBC’s use of the facial recognition system to root out identity theft and fraud.

ICBC uses the biometric database to compare the image of someone seeking a driver’s licence to that person’s past images in the system as well as those of all other B.C. drivers, flagging any discrepancies.

It routinely detects people who have been banned from driving who are trying to gain a licence under someone else’s name, as well as illegal immigrants trying to dodge deportation.

“We absolutely welcome the findings and the recommendations,” ICBC spokesman Adam Grossman said, adding ICBC is taking steps to better notify customers of how their images are being used.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association had worried from the launch of the database that it could be inappropriately used by police to rapidly sift photos or images from surveillance video.

Executive director David Eby said he’s pleased with the ruling, adding it ensures the basic safeguard of court oversight.

“Once a database is created people tend to come up with bright ideas all the time about how to use them,” he said.

Eby said he found ICBC’s lax “off-the-cuff, hey-have-a-look” attitude to control of its photo database troubling and questioned what other agencies might have got voluntary access had the offer to VPD not been made public, triggering the commissioner’s investigation.