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Police chief backs licence tracking

Graham: Trust us on use of data from surveillance

Victoria's police chief is strongly in favour of a massive surveillance system being considered by the RCMP that would retain B.C. drivers' licence plate numbers as a possible tracking tool.

In the next few months, the Mounties could expand their automated licenceplate recognition system to retain the plates of drivers who have done nothing wrong - information known as "non-hit" data.

Chief Jamie Graham said he spoke at the Reboot Privacy and Security Conference in February in support of keeping the data in case it was needed in a criminal investigation.

"I said that I'd like to retain it [the non-hit data], so what?" Graham said in an interview on Wednesday.

"It's that old adage, if you haven't done anything wrong and there's no issues, what's to be worried about? If you are on the run from the law or wanted in another province, a prohibited driver, a list of things, and you're associated to a motor vehicle, then you should be worried. I say, you've got to deal with it."

Cameras on 43 police vehicles across B.C. record 3,000 licence plates an hour but keep only the information on drivers who are flagged as having outstanding warrants, a dangerous criminal history or expired insurance. The other data is deleted by RCMP computer servers each day.

But the RCMP want to keep all the data, essentially compiling a list of times and locations of thousands of B.C. drivers.

RCMP Supt. Denis Boucher said the list would be a valuable investigative tool that could be used to track the whereabouts of a suspect or to validate an alibi.

Privacy advocates are appalled that a catch-all surveillance system could compile a database of personal information and previous locations without a warrant.

Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the Times Colonist the system could open up the danger of a "pre-crime mentality" where police use "broad-based dragnet surveillance" to store information in case something goes wrong.

Graham called the licence-plate readers "phenomenally effective" in that they "allow us to track miscreants who disobey court orders - and prohibited drivers disobeying conditions on all sorts of things."

Graham dismissed the "pre-crime" argument and said the public should trust that police would not use the data for unlawful purposes.

"We can't use the data without lawful authority," he said. "It's not as if we're farming these licence plates through our systems every hour to look for people for various reasons."

B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner is investigating whether the Victoria police department is breaking the law by automatically recording vehicle licence plates.

Victoria police said it has developed policies to ensure it complies with privacy legislation, but have yet to provide a copy to the Times Colonist, saying certain portions may have to be redacted.

Graham said the policies should be released.

"I don't know why they just don't tell you. What's the big secret?" he said.