When three Victoria residents – including a PhD candidate studying privacy and surveillance issues and a web architecture developer –wondered whether the use of license plate scanning technology by Victoria Police was compliant with privacy legislation, they started to ask the right people the right questions. When the answers that came back were elusive or contradictory they asked the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner (the “Commissioner”) to investigate.

The Commissioner’s report on the use of Automated Licence Plate Recognition (“ALPR”) by the Victoria police was issued on November 15, 2012.

“ALPR”

A car-mounted camera capable of scanning thousands of license plates per day is a powerful crime detection tool. BC RCMP and Police in Victoria and Vancouver currently use this technology – known as Automated Licence Plate Recognition (“ALPR”) – to scan, record and store licence plate information and cross -reference it with database information, primarily with the information stored in RCMP databases.

The plate numbers are correlated to databases of reasons why the vehicle owner might be of interest to police. Matching plate numbers, or “hits”, generate an alert to the officer using the system, while unmatched or “non-hit” data is destroyed at the end of the shift. Police are now considering the possibility of storing all hit data and non-hit data – including time and location of collection – for later use.

ALPR in BC

ALPR first came to BC in 2006 as a pilot project to help police locate stolen vehicles. Since 2006, the uses of ALPR have changed, and now include locating wanted persons or missing children, identifying prohibited, unlicensed or uninsured drivers and recovering stolen property.

ALPR around the world

Concerns about ALPR have led to restrictions or prohibitions on its use in other jurisdictions. There are several examples: in Ontario, only “hit” data can be stored by police. In Maine and New Hampshire police may only use ALPR in connection with strategic locations or specific investigations. In Germany, the retention of non-hit data was ruled unconstitutional.

Report findings

The Commissioner’s first question about the use of ALPR by Victoria Police was whether ALPR is collecting personal information; if so, do the Victoria Police have the authority to use ALPR to collect, use and disclose that personal information? Are the police required to notify individuals that their personal information is being collected? Have they implemented reasonable security arrangements to protect the personal information it collects from unauthorized used or disclosure?

There is conflicting authority from other jurisdictions whether or not licence plate numbers constitute personal information. The Ontario Privacy Commissioner has determined that licence plate numbers are personal information, while – in a slightly different context – the Alberta Court of Appeal recently ruled that a furniture store’s collection of license plate numbers in their parking lot did not involve personal information.

Because license plate numbers are cross-referenced to an identifiable individual the Commissioner determined that Police using ALPR in BC are collecting personal information.

The Police may collect, use and disclose personal information without consent if it serves a law enforcement purpose, and the Commissioner found that most – but not all – of the information collected, used and disclosed by police using ALPR meets this test.

Problematic “hit” categories

The ALPR databases currently include “hit” categories that don’t fall within the Ministry approved mandate to “reduce auto theft and motor vehicle violations related to prohibited, suspended, unlicensed and uninsured drivers”, or to assist with “recovering stolen vehicles and stolen property, and detecting AMBER Alerts issued for missing children”.

The problematic “hit” categories include police alerts for license plate numbers of individuals who have court ordered custody of a child; individuals with prior involvement in an “incident” under section 5 of the Firearms Act or who were refused a firearms license; individuals who have attempted suicide or who may at risk of family violence; or someone who is a close relative or known associate of a person of interest to police.

While the police justify these “hit” categories as serving a “contextual” purpose, the Commissioner does not agree, for example, that it serves a valid law enforcement purpose for an officer to know when a single parent is driving by.

Commissioner’s recommendations

While acknowledging that overall, the use of ALPR serves valid law enforcement purposes, the Commissioner suggests a line needs to be drawn with the information in ALPR databases.

The databases should be scrubbed of problematic “contextual” information, leaving behind only information relevant to an officer scanning passing vehicles to further the valid law enforcement purposes expressed in the ALRP program mandate such as locating a “wanted person”, recovering a stolen car or identifying a prohibited driver.

The Commissioner also recommends that the Minister of Justice clarify the mandate of ALPR to give members of the public a better understanding of the purpose and scope of ALPR.

Finally, the Commissioner takes issue with the suggestion that ALPR scans could be retained for future use:

Collecting personal information for law enforcement purposes does not extend to retaining information on the suspicionless activities of citizens just in case it may be useful in the future.

For more information, the Commissioner’s report is here. An article from Focus Magazine written by Rob Wipond (one of the individuals who asked the Commissioner to investigate ALPR) is here.