Municipal police that use licence plate-reading cameras to pull over suspected law-breakers have been told they can’t also use or collect data on the movements of other motorists the system detects but who aren’t matched to any policing “alert” list.
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham ruled Victoria Police must change their practices to comply with provincial privacy law and the decision is expected to affect other forces using Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems.
More than 40 camera-equipped police cars in B.C. rapidly scan parked or passing vehicles against policing databases, typically in search of prohibited drivers, motorists who are wanted by police and stolen or uninsured cars.
The commissioner’s findings apply to “non-hit” data where cars not flagged in a police database are also detected and their time and location recorded.
Denham said she is “deeply concerned” about the privacy implications after investigating complaints the technology could be used as a surveillance tool.
“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,” Denham said.
The RCMP, who manage the ALPR database in the province, delete the non-hit data within 30 minutes of receiving it from municipal forces.
But Mounties told Denham they are considering retaining it for investigative purposes.
“The indiscriminate nature of this automated collection of personal information is extremely problematic,” Denham concluded in her report.
“The retention and subsequent use of non-hit and obsolete-hit personal information would result in the creation of an expansive database that describes the whereabouts of many British Columbians as they go about their routine daily activities.”
She recommended municipal police immediately delete non-hit vehicle identifications but noted her office has no power to direct the RCMP to comply.
B.C. Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn applauded the ruling.
“This was a classic example of galloping function creep where information gathered for one purpose – the perfectly legitimate search for stolen vehicles – very quickly becomes how we just gather this information for the sake of having it,” she said.
Vonn said British police have used licence plate scanners to first identify protesters arriving at a demonstration and then later use the data to intercept or harass the same people heading to subsequent protests.
Taken to extremes, critics argue, authorities could use ALPR to track where union leaders, protest organizers and journalists go and who they meet.
RCMP have dismissed such notions but said they could envision using ALPR non-hit data to look back in time to see whether a suspect’s vehicle was or wasn’t near a crime scene.
Vonn said the undeniable value for law enforcement doesn’t justify police using the technology on everyone for “dragnet data capture.”