Our View: Pictures of privacy

Critics have objected that the RCMP and other forces are using the plate-scanning technology for purposes beyond the original intent.

B.C.’s Privacy Commissioner is examining the use of cruiser-mounted cameras by police to scan licence plates from passing vehicles.

Critics have objected, citing privacy concerns, that the RCMP and other forces are using the plate-scanning technology for purposes beyond the original intent. The camera-equipped police cars scan passing or parked vehicle plates against ICBC and national police databases. Police instantly see if a car is stolen or uninsured—or if the probable driver is unlicensed, prohibited from driving, wanted by police or accused of a crime. Each time a flagged vehicle is detected, its time and location are recorded and kept for two years.

Rob Wipond, one of three independent researchers whose work prompted the privacy investigation, said the criteria for generating actionable hits has crept from traffic violations to data like whether you’ve ever gone to court to seek child custody or had a mental health episode that involved police.

That might seem laudable when it helps police find an abduction victim, solve a murder or keep sex offenders from parking outside schools.

But Wipond envisions British-style uses, like recording the licence plates of vehicles coming to a lawful demonstration, then using ALPR to detect, intercept and slow the same protesters headed to future gatherings. Wipond theorizes police algorithms could one day decide that because someone went to a suspicious location, they should be flagged for closer scrutiny in the future—data that might result in them not being allowed to fly or cross borders. Would you be comfortable being tracked all the time? Would if affect your sense of freedom?

The RCMP are considering keeping all plate recognition data for every vehicle the system identifies. And given the program has morphed from tracking stolen cars to tracking a broader set of targets, it’s fair to ask, what next?We need to determine a fair and proportionate use for the technology that still respects one’s right to privacy.

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