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Another Step Closer to Reining in ALPR in BC

Photo by Vince Alongi

For the past several years I’ve had the privilege of working with excellent colleagues, Rob Wipond and Kevin McArthur, in opposing how Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems are deployed in BC. It’s been a long slog, and taken a long time, and led to an awful lot of writing, but after a favourable decision by the BC Privacy Commissioner about the technology (short: it’s permissible, in limited circumstances, so long as local police don’t upload innocent license plates snapped by the cameras, and confirm the validity of algorithmically identified guilty plates) it looked like the tides had turned.

And then we learned that the Commissioner’s decision wouldn’t necessarily apply to the RCMP. In response, Vincent Gogolek of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association wrote piece about the limits of the BC Commissioner’s mandate, titled “It Takes Two To Kill Illegal Police Licence Surveillance.” His argument was that stopping the worst surveillance practices linked with ALPR would require ruling by the provincial and federal privacy commissioners. We also learned that some provincial police forces – which fell under the purview of the BC Commissioner – were refusing to comply with the Commissioner’s decision. This latter issue led Wipond to publishing an article titled “So it’s illegal surveillance, so what?

Fast forward to this year and we learn that the RCMP says it will make changes to its automated licence plate scanning system to comply with BC law. It’s unclear whether those changes will apply to just provincial policing bodies, or if the RCMP’s own usage of the technology will also be modified.

While concerns about what policing bodies will be affected by the changes are serious, there’s an even bigger problem: we’ve heard these exact same promises before. The fixes the RCMP are now pledging were also made several years ago. Wipond summarizes:

After criticisms from the federal Privacy Commissioner’s office in 2009 about their “ubiquitous surveillance” of innocent citizens, RCMP Inspector Mike Diack pledged in a March 30, 2010 letter to the federal Assistant Commissioner that police ALPR systems in BC would no longer collect the secondary, or non-hit data. Diack wrote, “I have instructed the manufacturer to reconfigure our ALPR systems to collect only primary hit data. The manufacturer indicates that this will take approximately 4-6 weeks[.]” For those intervening weeks, Diack added, the RCMP themselves would delete the non-hit data as soon as they received it from VicPD.

Several weeks later, VicPD chief information officer Hervey Simard drew up an overview of how VicPD’s ALPR system operated, indicating that the promised technical change had occurred. Simard explained: “When the shift ends, the [VicPD] officer will click on the ‘End Shift’ button on the screen. The process will delete all [non-hit] ‘reads’, which consist of 95 percent of data. The [VicPD] officer will bring back the USB [to the RCMP] which contains only ‘hits’.”

So, while it’s positive to hear the RCMP say they’ll modify their existing data collection processes….these were processes that were supposed to have been remedied in 2010. It’s almost 3 years later and we’re still waiting on the authorities to make good on their pledge. So we should remain skeptical that these changes will actually be made. And we should remain displeased that, after the RCMP failed to provide these fixes, local policing bodies continued using the surveillance systems without the privacy protections put in place. In short, the RCMP misled our public authorities and the provincial police behaved in a cavalier manner towards BC residents’ privacy.

It’s actions such as these that damage the trust the civilians put in their policing bodies. If the police are willing to mislead their government watchdogs, then how can we trust the police to keep the other pledges and guarantees that they offer the public and overseers?

1 Comment

  1. Interesting post.

    In Seattle our local police dept accepted money from the US Homeland Security Administration to place 30 surveillance cameras at popular public waterfront locations. The political response after local media exposure has sent politicians scrambling for explanations and the public questioning the need for this intrusive technology.

    Link to local newspaper story;
    http://seattletimes.com/html/latestnews/2020260670_waterfrontcamerasxml.html

    PS. Involved as a volunteer in local progressive politics. Learned much from an older poly-sci book; The Logic of Collective Action – by Mancur Olson. He lays out the case for democracy as a scale problem, less than 3000 actors participation rates are healthy and process works, but in larger groups (civic, business, labor etc) participation is low and system serves the self-interested motivated minority. I think Mr. Olson introduce the “Rational Voter Problem” to the field with lasting consequences. I am still looking for a way to address the issues raised in this fine research.

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