11/16/2012Canada: Privacy Commissioner Blasts License Plate Readers
British Columbia, Canada privacy commissioner rules Victoria Police use of license plate scanners violates the law.
The use of Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR, also known as ANPR in the UK) is coming under increasing scrutiny in North America. The American Civil Liberties Union in July began requesting data from law enforcement agencies around the country so the activist group's lawyers could examine data collection policies. On Thursday, British Columbia, Canada's Information and Privacy Commissioner released the results of an official audit that took six months to look at whether use of the devices by the Victoria Police Department violates the law.
Commissioner Elizabeth Denham opened her inquiry after receiving a number of requests from concerned members of the public. She focused on determining whether use of cameras to track and store license plate data from all passing vehicles, even when their occupants were not suspected of any crime, was permissible under Canada's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
"Once a government has personal information, it may seek to find new uses for that information," Denham wrote. "This phenomenon, known as 'function creep,' is being made increasingly easier as information technology develops newer and more sophisticated means to 'mine' data for useful or interesting patterns, or to link databases of information. For these reasons, privacy laws such as FIPPA seek to protect against function creep by limiting government bodies to collecting only personal information that is necessary for their present programs."
In theory, passing vehicles are checked against a list of stolen or otherwise wanted cars. When the scanned plates matches a plate on the list, it is called a "hit" which triggers an alert for the police officer using the device. Cars not on the list are labeled as "non hits." Denham ruled police may not store data related to non-hits under FIPPA.
"I find that disclosure of non-hit personal information by Victoria Police to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is not for a law enforcement purpose, and is therefore not authorized by FIPPA," Denham concluded.
Victoria Police claimed license plate data is not personal information subject to protection. The argument is undermined by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police privacy impact assessment that says license plate data is personal information.
British Columbia is not alone in seeking limits to the use of plate scanning devices. Denham noted Ontario limits the use of ALPR to "hit" data, and the states of Maine and New Hampshire restrict use to specific criminal investigations and do not allow random or routine searchers.
A copy of the report is available in a 630k PDF file at the source link below.