It’s a well-kept secret that local police and the RCMP have quietly constructed an expansive network for public traffic surveillance. The details of its utilization remain shrouded in secrecy, leaving many curious about its true purpose and potential implications. Media outlets and law enforcement agencies across North America have hailed Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology as a game-changer in law enforcement enthusiastically.
Functionality of ALPR – Technological Breakthrough in Policing
Conventionally, police officers manually input license plate numbers to check for suspicious vehicles against the databases of the Canadian Police Information Centre and ICBC. However, with the introduction of ALPR technology, police cruisers are now equipped with two cameras and specialized software capable of swiftly capturing license plate information from both stationary and passing cars. Vendors claim that this technology can read thousands of license plates per hour with an impressive accuracy rate of 95-98 percent. The captured plate numbers are then compared against “hot lists” of stolen vehicles, unlicensed drivers, uninsured drivers, and missing children maintained by ICBC and the Canadian Police Information Centre. When a match occurs, the system automatically timestamps and stores the license plate photos, along with additional details such as time, date, and GPS coordinates. Police officers can then directly investigate the relevant information in the databases and take appropriate action if necessary.
Potential Misuses of ALPR
Despite the positive narrative surrounding ALPR technology, some academics and civil rights advocates have voiced concerns about its potential applications and implications. ALPR initially emerged in the 1990s as a tracking tool employed by the British government to monitor the movements of the Irish Republican Army. The International Association of Police Chiefs later advocated for the widespread adoption of ALPR technology among nations to combat gang activity and terrorism. Today, ALPR systems in the UK are used for purposes beyond law enforcement, such as toll collection, risk profiling of travellers, and monitoring of individuals associated with protests.
Role of Privacy Commissioners
The public’s concerns regarding ALPR have been somewhat pacified by statements from federal and provincial privacy commissioners, who have supposedly approved the system’s implementation, ensuring compliance with privacy legislation. However, no comprehensive investigations into the veracity of these claims or related complaints have taken place in Canada. This lack of scrutiny prompted an independent research team consisting of Rob Wipond, Christopher Parsons, and Kevin McArthur to explore the subject further.
Federal Privacy Commissioner’s Position
The federal Privacy Commissioner’s office issued statements refuting journalists’ and the RCMP’s claims of having obtained approval for ALPR. In fact, the Privacy Commissioner described the ALPR program to Parliament as “general and ubiquitous surveillance, without adequate safeguards.” The Commissioner emphasized the need for clear public disclosure of the program’s operations and information usage.
Access to Information Revelation
Through an Access to Information request, Wipond’s team unearthed a revealing 77-page Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) dated October 17, 2009. Contrary to public knowledge, the PIA indicated that the range of individuals generating “hits” in the ALPR system extends far beyond car thieves and child kidnappers. ALPR captures and retains data on the movements of individuals who are on parole or probation, have been accused of criminal offences, attended court for child custody matters, had mental health-related encounters with the police, or are linked to ongoing investigations. This extensive list of hit categories, partially redacted by the RCMP, raises questions about the system’s original purpose and how it aligns with official narratives.
Elusive Data: Uncovering Contradictions and Inconsistencies
Inquiries to both the RCMP and the VicPD for “all documents” related to ALPR yielded perplexing responses. While the VicPD initially claimed to have no data on ALPR, subsequent investigations exposed 500 pages of written, hard-copy logs documenting every ALPR hit. On the other hand, the RCMP’s response to the requests was marked by delays, document restrictions, and contradictory statements regarding the nature of the data collected.
Evaluating ALPR’s Efficacy
Despite the widespread adoption of ALPR technology, questions regarding its effectiveness and impact remain largely unanswered. ALPR has undoubtedly resulted in numerous charges for driving offences, such as driving without a license, lacking insurance, or driving while prohibited or suspended. However, a comprehensive assessment of crime rates and the system’s preventive capabilities is lacking. The limited existing studies on ALPR suggest that it does not significantly deter or prevent various types of crimes, echoing similar findings related to other camera-surveillance operations.
ALPR’s propensity to generate an excessive workload for police officers without significant crime prevention outcomes raises doubts about its true purpose. Superintendent Mike Diack and Sgt. Warren Nelson, who oversees the ALPR program, asserts that the retention of data aligns with the Privacy Act’s requirements. However, the contradictory statements made by the RCMP officials regarding the nature of the data and its classification as “personal information” raise concerns about the program’s compliance with privacy laws.
Real Agenda and Function Creep
The concerns surrounding surveillance have been a long-standing issue for Micheal Vonn, the policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Expressing her worries about the lack of transparency, she compared the situation to something out of Lewis Carroll’s or Kafka’s works. The deliberate vagueness and constant shifting of targets by the police, particularly the RCMP, raise suspicions about their motives. According to Vonn, citizens should be deeply concerned not only about the surveillance technologies themselves but also about the government’s opacity.
Vonn disagreed with Diack’s dismissal of the Privacy Impact Assessment’s (PIA) differences from the actual program. She emphasized the importance of policy documents and their contents, comparing the attempt to comprehend the program to trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. The lack of clarity raises questions about the true intentions behind the ALPR system.
If an external contractor wrote the PIA for the RCMP, Vonn speculated that it might have been superficially applied. The real content and implications of the program remain unknown to the public.
Contrary to Diack and Nelson’s claims that the ALPR system does not collect personal information, Vonn criticized their argument. She pointed out that personal information encompasses any data that can identify an individual, and the police do not stop a car on suspicion of someone else driving it.
The RCMP’s intention to retain non-hit data for a year raised concerns. Vonn expressed shock at the prospect of establishing a massive surveillance system to monitor all travellers on the highway and the general population’s travel patterns. The initial rationale of combating car theft has quickly escalated to population-based surveillance, illustrating a clear case of function creep. The expansion of surveillance from stolen cars to encompassing everyone is alarming.
Distracting from Real Police Work?
Who Protects Our Privacy?
Raymond Wacks, a privacy expert, highlights the fundamental importance of privacy, which forms the bedrock of free speech, free association, equality before the law, and individual freedom. However, as surveillance systems like ALPR continue to encroach upon our lives, the mechanisms to protect privacy are sorely lacking.
The legal limitations on police rights to gather personal information are meagre, as explained by Vonn from the BC Civil Liberties Association. The absence of clear parameters and case law creates uncertainty about what constitutes personal information collected for law enforcement purposes. Vonn foresees the need for a legal challenge or inquiry to address this broad definition and ensure transparency.
Modern surveillance technologies have removed the traditional limitations on police investigations due to resource constraints. Parsons pointed out that the proliferation of efficient surveillance mechanisms erodes the frictions that safeguard our freedoms.
Holding the police accountable is nearly impossible for the public. Agencies can withhold information for years, evading scrutiny. Privacy Commissioners, both at the federal and provincial levels, lack enforcement powers. They rely on collegial relationships and discussions rather than enforceable measures. The lack of official representatives willing to discuss controversial programs like ALPR raises concerns about transparency and accountability.
While Treasury Board holds the ultimate authority to ensure compliance with privacy laws, it remains unclear whether the RCMP’s Privacy Impact Assessment accurately reflects the program’s operations. The absence of a mandatory approval process by the Privacy Commissioner raises doubts about the safeguarding of Canadians’ privacy.
The Madrid Privacy Declaration, signed by privacy experts worldwide, calls for meaningful Privacy Impact Assessments and a moratorium on mass surveillance. Building on this, Parsons questioned why police do not collaborate more with civil liberties advocates to protect citizens.
Vonn emphasized the importance of responsible and transparent policing, advocating for civilian oversight. She highlighted the danger of relying on simplistic narratives of “good guys versus bad guys,” as it hinders open and honest debate. A free and democratic society should not tolerate an unaccountable surveillance infrastructure while being placated with misleading rhetoric.
As my research team reconvened, it became evident that even the most informed citizens on ALPR in Canada struggled to find answers to basic questions. The lack of public awareness and scrutiny surrounding these issues is concerning. Despite the presence of critical information in the RCMP’s Privacy Impact Assessment, it is unclear whether anyone outside our team has carefully reviewed it. The absence of accountability and transparency is alarming in the face of such extensive surveillance practices. It is time for a meaningful public debate on the implications of these systems and the protection of our privacy.