07/30/2012 07:34 EDT | Updated 09/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Police Rooftop Cameras A Privacy Violation? B.C.'s Privacy Commissioner Wants To Know


VANCOUVER - B.C.'s privacy commissioner wants to know if police are complying with privacy laws when they use cameras mounted on patrol cars to photograph vehicles and licence plates.

Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham has launched an investigation, saying the so-called automated licence plate recognition program allows police to compare the photos to a list of licence plate numbers associated with people who are of interest to police.

She said the investigation will focus on the use of the program by the Victoria Police Department, but a report expected to be published later this summer will provide guidance to all B.C. law enforcement agencies that use it.

The program instantly notifies police when there is a match and has been used by the Victoria Police Department since March, but began as an RCMP program in 2006.

Denham said members of the public have raised concerns about the use of the technology and its implications on people's privacy.

Cara McGregor, of the Office of the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner, said the investigation will look at how information is collected and how police use that information after getting it.

She said the investigation was launched after a submission outlining concerns about its use by three private citizens.

Victoria Chief Constable Jamie Graham said the automated licence plate recognition program — or ALPR — is a valuable police tool.

“This is an incredibly important application that directly contributes to improved road safety,” said Graham in a written release.

“For example, ALPR can help officers stop prohibited drivers, drivers without insurance, and recover stolen vehicles.”

The statement said though the program is administered by the RCMP, Victoria police have developed their own policies regarding its use while complying "with all relevant legislation."

The department declined a request for an interview.

Micheal Vonn from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said her organization is pleased with the privacy commissioner's decision to look into the program.

Vonn said she suspects police are using it for more than rounding up insurance frauds and people with outstanding warrants.

"We have every reason to believe, on the very limited amount of documents that we've seen, that they're being used for much broader purposes," said Vonn.

"And whether that's legitimate is, of course, an appropriate subject for the privacy commissioner."

Vonn said she fears police could use it to easily gather information, for example, about who is attending public protests by driving through a parking lot scanning and retaining the licence plates of those thought to be attending.

"In the United Kingdom, the police are conducting interceptions of people who are on their way to demonstrations," she said.

"That's an example of what kind of ability this gives you to track where people go and to essentially intercept them."

She said right now the system and its use across the province are "mired in muck and murk" when it comes to clear guidelines for use and how the police employ it.

McGregor said although the privacy commissioner has order-making power, in this case she will likely make recommendations based on her findings regarding the use of the program.

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