ALPR - Canada's Big Brother? The federal database that's keeping tabs on Vancouver.

[originally posted to freesociety.ca, now part of this site]

It all started with an announcement on Nov 9, 2006. British Columbia was to be the first province in Canada to use a fantastic new crime fighting tool; the Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) network.

The ALPR technology works by integrating various types of camera systems, like the ones you see on bridges and near intersections, with computers that can process the photos using optical-character-recognition (OCR) technology. The cameras are also able to be mounted on police cruisers so that the technology can be used to scan cars in parking lots.

The government claimed it would help catch car thieves, even armed robbers and that it was all just fine by the federal and provincial privacy commissioners. The message, we're going to clean up the streets and law abiding Canadians have nothing to worry about.

But one seemingly innocuous sentence was also slipped into the press release.

"If the license plate does not show a violation, the image will be automatically purged from the computer system after three months."

With this statement the RCMP quietly made public the existence of a massive federal database containing records about the movements of law-abiding Canadians. When an innocent person is scanned by an ALPR enabled camera, their location is recorded, dated and put in a federal database for future reference and data mining.

Fortunately, the ALPR program operates under federal privacy legislation which specifies that the information may only be stored for up to three months. The ALPR program has been reviewed by the federal privacy commissioner and the provincial commissioner has also been briefed on the program.

Not running afoul of the three month limit, the RCMP is using this information to create a perpetually up-to-date database on as many Canadians as they can observe. However, our privacy legislation was never designed to authorize a perpetual file on people. It was instead, introduced as the solution to ensure that the RCMP did not engage in long term data warehousing.

The manufacturers of ALPR technology claim that it can help expose organized crime and terrorist organizations by tracking a suspect's movements. The idea is that without having to tail or follow a suspect, information about where they have travelled and the correlation of who they are meeting with could be used to provide valuable intelligence on the membership of the group.

What they fail to mention is that, repurposed, the same technology can be used to determine the membership of protest organizations, trade unions, political parties and even expose a reporter's confidential sources. In society there are many valid reasons for people to require privacy from the watchful eyes of the RCMP and this technology is a serious threat to that freedom.Some of the ALPR technologies being marketed will generate a map for all observed sightings for a given plate, right in the cruiser.

In the future this will likely lead to the data being used to create movement based security scores, like the ones they use at the border to decide if you are a terrorist. This type of scoring may tag a person who lives in a bad neighbourhood with higher score than someone from an affluent area.

Geographic profiling emerges; at road-checks, plates may be run and drivers who regularly travel in high-crime neighbourhoods may be subjected to additional questioning, while those from upper-class neighbourhoods probably waved right on through. Forget two-tier health-care, the future holds two-tier policing.

The ALPR technology is only the tip of the iceberg and a sign of policing tactics to come. The officers involved even go as far as to call it a 'revolutionary' advance in policing. Soon, facial recognition technologies, like those already found in police cruisers, will be integrated with these camera systems, extending the profiling from three months of vehicle usage to generalized public surveillance.

The current implementation of these technologies is proceeding because proponents argue that there is no expectation of privacy with a license plate. A plate's very purpose is to allow law enforcement to identify you. However, many critics will point out that it is not the identification that is problematic, but instead the collection and correlation of metadata about the license plate, like its location at a specific time that is of concern.

For privacy advocates, it is the distinction between seeing someone on the street, and stalking them. A person may not have a reasonable expectation of being unseen, but they do have a reasonable expectation that they are not being followed.

Or at least, they used to.

The RCMP is not being secretive about the existence of the technology or its potential to catch traffic violators. They've even put together a nice demonstration video for the technology.

 

Update: Heres another demo video from Long Beach California.

 

But for all the fun of watching criminals get caught on the BaitCar website, the RCMP is telling us almost nothing about how they are using the data they collect about innocent people. We just aren't being told and there's no one watching the watchers.

The potential misuse of this information is extremely troubling and could even have dire consequences on our democracy. It's time to tell the RCMP that it is not ok to track the movements of innocent Canadians as they navigate through public space.

Recommended Reading:

Baitcar.com: Government and Police Launch New Crime-Fighting Tool
Canadian Security Magazine: RCMP in Lower Mainland B.C. put technology to the test.
SatViz.com: Canada Develops Vehicle Tracking System - and it Ain't GPS
Slashdot: ACLU Protests Police Scanning License Plates
BC Government Press Release - Nov 9, 2006
Law and Order Magazine: Automatic License Plate Recognition Systems
KU researcher warns against potential threat of 'geoslavery'

Manufacturers of ALPR technology:

Note: It is not the ALPR manufacturers fault that there is a market for their products.

NDI Technologies - Veriplate ALPR
PIPS Technology: ALPR
PIPS Technology: Video Demonstration
EYENET: ALPR Solutions
EYENET: Video Demonstration