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Privacy czar to investigate licence scans

Police defend drive-by surveillance; critic cites huge 'capacity for abuse'

B.C.'s privacy watchdog has launched an investigation into whether the Victoria Police Department is breaking the law by automatically recording vehicle licence plates.

Information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham's office said Monday that concerns about the implications of widespread police surveillance technology have prompted her to launch the review, which should be complete this summer.

"There will be some discussion of what kind of information is being collected: How it is being used, is it being disclosed to anybody or any other agencies, how long is it being retained? These are the kinds of questions the investigation will examine," said Cara McGregor, a spokeswoman for Denham.

The automated licence plate recognition system consists of a camera mounted to a police vehicle, capable of recording 3,000 licence plates per hour.

Those plates are automatically run through ICBC and police databases, instantly flagging drivers with outstanding warrants and insurance infractions.

Police say it's a valuable safety tool.

Several local police agencies, such as the Saanich Police Department and the Capital Region Integrated Road Safety Unit, already use the system. There are 43 cameraequipped vehicles in the province. Denham's report will focus on VicPD but contain recommendations for other departments, McGregor said.

The investigation was prompted by a letter to Denham from three Victoria researchers - Rob Wipond, Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur - who have spent two years fighting for information about the licence plate program from VicPD and the RCMP.

"This is a very dangerous tool we have given our police forces," said Wipond, a journalist who has catalogued hundreds of pages of data on his website robwipond.com. "It's a mass population surveillance tool that has extraordinary capacity for abuse."

Currently, that "non-hit" data on clean drivers is deleted every day, said Supt. Denis Boucher, who runs the licence plate recognition program as head of RCMP E-Division traffic services.

But the RCMP is considering keeping the data on ordinary people, so that it can log the time and location of thousands of British Columbians and their vehicles.

The RCMP administers the licence plate recognition program for B.C. police forces, causing further confusion over whether the Mountie-run systems fall under B.C. privacy laws or report only to the federal privacy commissioner.

VicPD chief Jamie Graham said the system is "an incredibly important application that directly contributes to improved road safety."

VicPD says it has developed policies to ensure it complies with privacy legislation, but wouldn't provide a copy of those policies when asked Monday. rshaw@timescolonist.co