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Police violating privacy laws with plate readers, rules privacy commissioner

Saanich police traffic officer Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader, which scans licence plates and alerts officers of prohibited drivers and uninsured vehicles. In a ruling on Thursday, the B.C. privacy commissioner says the system casts too wide a net in its search for law breakers.  - Kyle Slavin/News staff
Saanich police traffic officer Const. Janis Carmena demonstrates the automated licence plate reader, which scans licence plates and alerts officers of prohibited drivers and uninsured vehicles. In a ruling on Thursday, the B.C. privacy commissioner says the system casts too wide a net in its search for law breakers.
— image credit: Kyle Slavin/News staff

Police agencies using automated licence plate readers will have to rejig the technology in the wake of a ruling by B.C.’s privacy commissioner.

Departments using this camera system collect reams of licence plate data from vehicles, which can help officers quickly flag prohibited drivers or stolen cars. It also records licence plates of “non-hit” vehicles just passing by.

Commissioner Elizabeth Denham issued a ruling today that says police departments need to erase this “non-hit” data before it is turned over to the RCMP, which administers the program across the province.

“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 in a release. “This information is not serving a law enforcement purpose and therefore, VicPD cannot disclose it to the RCMP.”

The ruling is in response to a specific complaint against the Victoria police, but extends across all municipal departments, including the Saanich police.

Saanich police have a single automated licence plate reader system, which is used by traffic patrol officers almost on a daily basis. The system rapidly scans and compares licence plates against a database to flag stolen vehicles, prohibited drivers, drivers with outstanding warrants and uninsured cars.

Saanich police Sgt. Dean Jantzen said the department needs to review the ruling. It's not clear if the vehicle with the licence plate reader would be pulled from service while the system is updated.

“We still have to review (the privacy commissioner’s) ruling and work with our RCMP partners to make sure we are in compliance,” Jantzen said Thursday. “We have to talk with our partners and see what this means for us.”

Jantzen noted that on the day of the privacy commissioner's ruling, Saanich officers used the licence plate reader to nab a prohibited driver 20 minutes after rolling out on patrol. The day before, it helped nab two prohibited drivers.

“This is a great public safety tool. It helps in many ways,” Jantzen said. “Overall it’s a valuable tool that we’d like to keep on our tool belt. It shows its value each time its on the road.”

A small set of Saanich traffic officers use and are trained in the plate reader system, and abide by RCMP policies and procedures on using, storing and deleting data. Jantzen said it’s too early to say if a technical fix for the system will be relatively easy or a major headache.

Denham’s ruling recommends that the system should delete “non-hit” data immediately. Currently, municipal officers, including Saanich, hand over an encrypted flash drive to the RCMP at the end of the shift, and the RCMP deletes “non-hit” information from its database within 30 minutes.

In her report, Denham also noted that police need to refine its most controversial “hit” category, called “other pointer vehicle.”

This catchall category includes people involved in a criminal court proceedings, known associates of criminals, people “of interest” to police or who are already under surveillance, parolees and people with firearms or alcohol prohibitions.

Denham said many aspects of the category veer outside the needs of law enforcement. As it stands, the “other pointer vehicle” category is in violation of personal privacy laws, she ruled.

The RCMP has indicated in past media interviews that it has considered keeping all hit and non-hit data, which includes the licence plate image, date and location. Denham's authority does not extend to the RCMP, but her ruling would preempt this data collection initiative.

RCMP Supt. Denis Boucher, the officer in charge of traffic services in B.C., said in a statement that Denham’s report “contains inaccurate information” about the plate reader system, and his office would provide a broader response once its had more time to review the report.

Boucher did say the single database under the RCMP protects the integrity of the information, and the system itself is a valuable public safety tool to detect criminal activity that would likely go undetected.

He didn’t specifically address concerns regarding “other pointer vehicle” hit category, but noted the system as it exists helps officers spot offenders who are violating court orders or parole conditions.

VicPD Chief Jamie Graham said in a statement the department "respectfully disagrees" with Denham's recommendations.

"VicPD does not make known or reveal any 'non-hit' data at any time. This data is transferred to the RCMP for the sole purpose of its destruction," Graham said.

The B.C. privacy commissioner does have legislative authority to force compliance to the recommendations, should VicPD refuse to do so.

"It's very seldom that we have to actually use our enforcement powers," Denham said.

See Denham's report here.

-- with files from Dan Palmer

editor@saanichnews.com

 

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