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Canadian Privacy Commissioner Hits Out At Number Plate Cameras - 16/11/2012

Number Plate
Plate image by antwelm

The Privacy Commissioner of British Colombia, Canada has hit out at the blanket use of number plate recognition cameras by police in a new report [1]. The Commissioner's response follows on from a complaint raised by three researchers Rob Wipond, Kevin McArthur and Christopher Parsons.

The Commissioner's report details an investigation into the use of Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) cameras by the Victoria Police Department in British Colombia. The Commissioner's report objects to the use of licence plate cameras to track the movements of law abiding motorists, it states:

Collecting personal information for law enforcement purposes does not extend to retaining information on the suspicionless activities of citizens just in case it may be useful in the future.

The Commissioner has recommended that the number plate systems should be reconfigured to delete data immediately after the system determines that it is not a match to vehicles on police databases.

In the UK a network of thousands of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras has been constructed without any public or Parliamentary debate, without the introduction of an Act of Parliament or even a Statutory Instrument. The UK cameras store the details of all cars that pass the cameras and store them in local police databases and a national ANPR database. In No CCTV's joint Information Commissioners Office (ICO) complaint [2], along with Privacy International and Big Brother Watch, we pointed out that the construction of a massive database of vehicle movements in the UK, which retains the details of all cars that pass the camera for two years, is the equivalent of an automated checkpoint that is the stuff of totalitarian states. Our complaint is ongoing.

The Canadian researchers that sparked the British Colombian Privacy Commissioners report have released the below press release.

Endnotes:

Researchers Encouraged by BC Privacy Commissioner's Investigation Report

The three researchers whose report prompted the BC Privacy Commissioner's investigation into Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) are very encouraged by the findings of Elizabeth Denham's report, released today.

Since 2006, the RCMP and a growing number of BC police forces have used cruiser-mounted automated camera systems to ubiquitously take pictures of BC vehicles' licence plates. Ostensibly used for catching stolen vehicles and unlicensed drivers, the researchers found that the ALPR system had "function creeped" into many more, highly questionable uses. As a result of concerns raised by the researchers, the Commissioner investigated how Victoria Police have been using ALPR. Her findings validate the concerns that the researchers' have raised to the Commissioner, to police, and to the public, especially in relation to the technology functioning as a massive public surveillance system.

Amongst other findings, the Privacy Commissioner determined that Victoria Police were:

  • improperly collecting personal information in many circumstances
  • compiling information about the movements of too wide a range of people, many innocent of any crimes, including parents with legal custody of children, individuals who have attempted suicide in the past, and individuals prohibited from operating a boat
  • improperly disclosing and sharing personal information with the RCMP
  • misleading to the public when suggesting that any Canadian privacy commissioner has approved an ALPR system in Canada

She recommended that the Victoria Police Department immediately modify their ALPR program to bring it into compliance with BC's privacy legislation. For example, the department must:

  • amend the composition of their surveillance categories to include only information that is related to a legitimate law enforcement purpose
  • work with the Ministry of Justice to inform the public of the full scope of the ALPR program
  • configure the program so that innocent individuals' personal information is deleted automatically

Not all the researchers concerns have been addressed yet, however. For example, neither issues concerning the overall inaccuracy of the ALPR system nor whether data is still retained on too many people have been addressed. While Commissioner Denham has determined what is legal, it is now up to the public to establish whether this type of police surveillance is right.

The researchers conclude: "This is a great day for British Columbians who value privacy, freedom of association and movement, and their right to be free of unwarranted government surveillance. The rule of law has prevailed, and we trust that our police and government will obey it moving forward."

Previous articles from the reseachers' work examining ALPR can be found at:


Posted in Anti-CCTV general - 16/11/2012

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