Scanner raises privacy concern

The office of Canada’s privacy commissioner has sent a letter to the RCMP citing concerns as police prepare to buy more high-tech licence-plate readers to use on B.C. roads.

"The main point for us is the fact that it is a broad surveillance technique," Chantal Bernier, assistant Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said yesterday.

Bernier said surveillance technologies typically capture a specific infraction, on the basis of suspicion that a law has been broken. The automated licence-plate recognition system, however, would capture all vehicles within its field of view — in motion or parked.

The RCMP has issued a tender for 60 of the systems, which include cameras mounted on police vehicles and linked to a computer database. The systems can alert police if a licence plate belongs to a stolen car, if the plate-holder is subject to any warrants, or if he or she was prohibited from driving. It could also be used in Amber Alert situations to help find missing children.

The RCMP ran a pilot program in 2006 using seven of the units to fight vehicle thefts in Surrey.

In April, the federal privacy commissioner’s office sent a letter to the RCMP acknowledging receipt of the police’s privacy-impact statement on the systems, and stating that a full examination was being carried out, Bernier said.

A further letter was sent July 15 raising important privacy concerns. Bernier noted the technology can also capture images of individual drivers. "We raised complex issues, so we expect that they, in turn, will need some time to do their homework."

The privacy commissioner’s role is to make recommendations on ways to improve projects to protect privacy, she said. Neither the provincial nor the federal privacy office has the authority to approve or reject a program.

Warren Nelson, the RCMP E division’s special project co-ordinator, said the July letter had not yet been received, but police "look forward" to the opportunity to address the privacy concerns.

David Loukidelis, Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., said he is waiting to receive a copy of the RCMP’s privacy-impact assessment.

While the federal privacy office has jurisdiction, the offices collaborate at times, he said.

Loukidelis said the licence-reading system offers opportunities for mass surveillance.

"What I would be wanting to see in place is some clear policies that ensure that it is used for targeted law-enforcement purposes."
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

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