Vincent Gogolek Headshot

Why Can't Victoria Police Be More Like Ottawa's Force?

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At first glance, it looks like the Victoria Police Department might be slowly coming to its senses.

Late last year, Vic PD turned up its nose at a report issued by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which stated that the force's Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) system violated the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The system uses cameras mounted on cruisers to check licence plates against police databases looking for a number of different infractions (and other more problematic information like attempted suicides). In her report, the commissioner made several recommendations for bringing the system into compliance with provincial law.

Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham, however, issued a statement in which he "respectfully disagreed" with the commissioner, declaring that his force would continue to use the system despite her findings.

Other police forces, though, were more amenable to the idea that they shouldn't break the law. In this province, Saanich Police suspended use of ALPRs until privacy concerns could be addressed and the system brought into compliance.

But Saanich isn't the only police force taking a more privacy sensitive approach.

Police in Ottawa, for instance, recently announced that until the public has had an adequate chance to provide input on the program, and until privacy concerns have been addressed, squad cars there will not be equipped with ALPR scanners.

Where Denham's findings were quickly dismissed by Victoria police, Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa police service board, has declared "it should have been (disclosed), not hidden... I can assure you we will not agree to anything that's going to contradict (Ontario's) privacy commissioner."

But earlier this week, at long last, it was announced that privacy upgrades are in the cards for the Victoria ALPR program. Denis Boucher, superintendent for the RCMP's E Division traffic services, which provide the technology to Vic PD, announced the changes at a Victoria Police Board meeting. Boucher stated that both hit and non-hit data would be collected by the cameras while a car is on shift, but would be deleted at the end of the day. Other concerns expressed by Denham are also supposed to be dealt with.

While these changes are welcome, they once again fall short of Ottawa's proactive approach. The Ontario Provincial Police's ALPR technology, used by the Ottawa police, will delete "non-hits" within 20 minutes, and Ontario Commissioner Ann Cavoukian is pushing for the department to cut that to 10 minutes.

"My goal is to have this done automatically; as soon as determination that's it's a non-hit, the next step, immediately, should be deleted," she told the Ottawa Citizen.

And apparently the illegal scanning by Victoria police will continue until the fixes are implemented. Unlike their counterparts in Saanich and Ottawa, Victoria police have no intention of switching off the cameras during privacy compliance upgrades.

It's looking more and more like the problems with ALPR are not the technology or the requirements of legitimate police work, but the attitude toward privacy and privacy law of Victoria's police chief.

There is a better and more privacy protective way to use this technology, and Chief Graham should embrace it. If he doesn't, the Victoria Police Board should force him to do it.