Police should delete the data

The automated licence-plate recognition camera can be a useful tool for police, but it should be for immediate use, not to create a long-term database on the comings and goings of innocent drivers.

Police in B.C., including the RCMP and Victoria and Saanich departments, have more than 40 cars equipped with cameras that can scan, record and file up to 3,000 licence plates per hour. The system flags such things as stolen cars or suspended drivers. The "non-hit" data is erased daily, but the RCMP would like to keep that data, which would give it a database containing information about thousands of drivers.

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Elizabeth Denham, B.C.'s privacy commissioner, doesn't like that. She recommends that police automatically delete information on people who are not suspects or who haven't broken the law. She fears the technology could become the means for mass surveillance.

The RCMP would like to keep the information for such things as checking alibis of people accused of crimes in the future. It's not difficult to see the attraction for investigators, but where would it stop? The temptation would be great to go fishing in that promising pool of information. Denham says that's against the law, and Justice Minister Shirley Bond says the province wouldn't support the move either.

And the concept goes against the golden thread that winds its way throughout our justice system - the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. A person shouldn't become the focus of an investigation just because he or she happened to drive along a certain street at a certain time.

But a person who hasn't done anything wrong shouldn't worry, right? Ask that to people whose lives have been ruined when they have been investigated or charged for a crime and later exonerated. That stigma of being the target of a police investigation is not easily erased, even when a person is cleared of all wrongdoing.

The potential for abuse and misuse is tremendous - digital data can be too easily copied and spilled across the universe, and when that happens, there's no calling it back. And technology is not foolproof - just ask people who have received photo-radar tickets from places they have never visited.

It's already too easy to capture and use personal information - it happens constantly on the Internet and in business. Computers keep track of our shopping habits, our web searches, our downloads, and that information is often used in trying to persuade us to buy goods and services.

But people are pushing back, objecting to their personal information being recorded without their permission.

While a licence-plate number might be considered public information, it is linked to personal information that should not become part of a database without our consent.

The omniscient state keeping track of each citizen's every move used to be the stuff of science fiction, but technology has not only made such surveillance possible, it has made it easy.

It would be unduly alarmist to see licence-plate recognition technology as only a step away from the all-seeing, all-controlling state, but keeping a database on drivers' movements is certainly a step in the wrong direction.

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