Privacy Commissioner investigates provincial surveillance program

Posted by David Broadland, July 30, 2012

Three independent researchers are praising the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia (OIPC) for today's announcement that it is launching a review into the use of Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) in the province.

See OIPC release here:

For the past year, the researchers have been using access to informationlaws to investigate BC police ALPR programs, and have shared their findings through articles, presentations, and blogs."The Commissioner's decision to investigate and issue a public report is an important validation of the concerns we've been raising," said freelance journalist Rob Wipond. "Authorities have frequently represented the ALPR program to the public as having been 'reviewed and approved' by Canada’s privacy commissioners, but that's not true."

Since 2005, the RCMP and a growing number of municipal and regional police forces in BC have been using cruiser-mounted automated camera systems to take snapshots of thousands of vehicle licence plates per hour. Ostensibly used mainly for catching stolen vehicles and unlicensed drivers, the researchers found that much of the ALPR data is being saved and stored for undisclosed purposes.

"Tracking the movements of innocent drivers represents a serious threat to Canadian privacy rights – rights which are essential for our freedom of expression and association," said technical security specialist and digital rights activist Kevin McArthur. "When combined with new federal and provincial laws expanding other types of secret digital surveillance and information gathering, the dangers are all the more heightened. So this review could not be more timely."

The researchers have been frequently stymied by police in their efforts to obtain information about ALPR. They feel more open public disclosure and discussion is needed, especially in light of recent indications that ALPR data may be being combined with data concerning people's ethnicity, blood type, and financial transactions. “Hopefully this will lead to a more public airing of how BC police forces are conducting surveillance in public spaces, and of how much information they're sharing with other authorities across North America," said University of Victoria political science PhD candidate Christopher Parsons. "Ideally, this review will also serve to remind government ministries that they must protect the basic privacy rights of all citizens."

Wipond published two articles reporting on the group's investigations in Victoria's Focus magazine. The articles have drawn international interest online, hitting the front pages of Slashdot and Reddit, and drawing a combined 100,000 readers. Parsons presented more of the group's findings at the Reboot Privacy and Security Conference in February, 2012. In March, Wipond, Parsons and McArthur sent a 16-page letter to the OIPC outlining their concerns and questions about the BC ALPR program.


For more information:



Rob Wipond



Christopher Parsons


Kevin McArthur


Rob Wipond's stories in Focus on ALPR can be found here and here