BC Privacy Commissioner finds problems with VicPD's use of ALPR

Posted by David Broadland, November 15, 2012

Three researchers, including Focus writer Rob Wipond, say they are encouraged by the findings of Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham's investigation into Victoria Police Department's use of an Automatic License Plate Recognition system.

Following publication of two articles in Focus by Rob Wipond (see here and here), which included research assistance from Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur, Parsons presented a brief to BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham on the use of ALPR in BC. In late July Denham announced her office would investigate. Her findings were released November 15.

In response, Wipond, Parsons and McArthur released the following statement:

"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.'"


Wipond was awarded the Jack Webster Award for Community Reporting on November 1 for his two Focus stories on the subject.