For the last 6 months I've been spending my off-hours working with a research collective consiting of Rob Wipond, Chris Parsons and Myself investigating the technology known as Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) and how it is being deployed by the RCMP and local police in Canada.
I'm happy to report that Focus Magazine has now published the story as written by Rob Wipond and you can read it here Hidden Surveilance" you can also read the source documents uncovered via freedom to information request on Rob's website RCMP & VicPD ALPR Documents Released
Rob covers the saga of obtaining these documents and doing the research far better than I ever could, so I'll dedicate this post a little bit to the inside baseball, how it came about and how citizens around the country can reclaim investigative journalism and their civil liberies themselves.
It all started in 2006, when the BC government released a press release about the deployment of a new policing tool. The press release really tries to sell this program, but it also revealed to the public for the first time that non-hit license plates (that is, license plates of completely innocent Canadians) would be tracked alongside the criminals and stored for 90 days.
To set the scene and add some personal context - in 2006, I was 23, and my job hadn't been e-commerce, it was VoIP. For a while I was employed as senior VoIP architect at a publicly traded telco and I designed research systems in SIP, RTP, ENUM, etc... as well as designing lawful intercept systems and figuring out ways to punch through carrier Net Neutrality violations. Around this time I founded Neutrality.ca... Canada's first digital policy campaign for Net Neutrality... and, at least in my mind, helped to define the space which groups like OpenMedia now dominate. I was an activist. They wrote about me in The Tyee. People threatened to sue me for public comments.
But I'm not an anarchist and the activist scene never felt right to me -- I might have a soft-spot for #occupy, but chances of finding me tenting by city hall are pretty slim. My parents were life-time civil servants, my dad a senior geologist, helped invent what we now call opendata by running skunkworks projects within the various deriviations of Energy, Mines and Petroleum, while my mother won a premiers award for work breaking down barriers to provincial trade. You learn a lot about the system growing up with civil servants, and I learned. I learned about waste and progress, about situations that evoke memories of 'ours is not to wonder why' and about situations where a moral stance was absolutely required, and of the very real, personal, consequences for whistleblowers within in our government. I ended up with both a respect for the inviduals working within, and a strong distrust for the institution itself.
So at 23 with the knowledge of how lawful intercepts were conducted and how dangerous this government can be, I read their press release with horror. I absolutely knew it would be abused, and that it was just the beachhead into a generalized surveilance society. I picked a fight. I wrote articles, public letters to privacy commissioners and even launched a site called freesociety.ca to collect my work. It got attention, but if it had any effect, I couldn't see it. I wasn't plugged in to the academics and civil liberties groups I am today. It took the Ideas Victoria group in 2011 to really make those linkages. So I let it drop, filed the articles away on my blog, and moved on to other pursuits -- I moved to Edmonton and refocused on building my business.
But it gnawed at me. I can't believe our government is doing this, that our media didnt care and that this is the society we are living in. It sucked, but it was hopeless. I bitched about it from time to time on my blog, and to the civil liberties types I met, but it wasn't until a meeting in 2011 with a critical thinkers group, that it all came together. I was explaining the issue to the group of folks there that night and Rob Wipond (an ideas regular) says, "I'm a journalist, so lets cover it", Chris Parsons (also an ideas regular, and surveilance researcher) said he was interested in helping too -- and so we began. Rob did what I couldn't, he knew how to pry information out of a system that explicitly claimed they had no information. So most other journalists might have dropped it, but when Rob reported 'they say they have nothing' or 'they say they store nothing', and we told him that couldn't possibly be true or we explained how, if it were true, it only raised more questions, he persisted. And it turns out we were right.
Over the next 6 months documents slowly came in as Rob fought with the FOI process. When we got back the privacy impact assessment document (PIA) from the RCMP, our worst fears were realized, they were collecting non-hit data. They were surveiling the public. We proved it... sorta. In followup interviews Rob was told that they dont actually do what they say they do in the PIA -- its only in the PIA but it doesnt actually happen.
So Rob kept digging and Info slowly came in. You can read the documents we got on Rob's blog. Nearly every wednesday night before the ideas meeting, we'd have dinner and pour over the latest twist and turn in the case. It was frustrating as all hell, but as Chris Parsons pointed out (paraphrased) ... "Every time they do this, its just another page for the report. "
So we pressed on and Rob kept getting the run around, but somehow with each conversation he learned some new little piece of information that linked to another piece, he caught folks in contradictions others being less than forthcoming with the truth. We studied the marketing material for PIPS and other ALPR manufacturers and got a really good idea of what was going on, and what the capabilities of this system are. But they denied it, its in the PIA, but it doesnt happen. That was the line and what at one second was personal information wasn't personal the next. In my head I they were Schrödinger's License Plates. If they weren't personal information, then we were entitled to it under FOI, and could happily publish the data for all to see. Have you seen my proactivedisclosure.ca site? We all got a good laugh, but it was true, if its not PII then its publishable, it it is, then there's rules about how it must be handled. The RCMP either didn't know whether it was PII, or they were up to something. We pressed on.
I truly thought I was going crazy, each discovery was quickly shot down, were they or werent they, personal information or not, approved by privacy commissioners or not? Michael Vonn from BCCLA got it right. The Jell-O met the wall and the team took turns using our heads as hammers.
We eventually got there, and, well, you can just read Robs article and make up your own mind on the evidence and where the program is going in the future, but I don't like where we're headed.
So what do we do. I tried writing letters. Doesn't work. What it took was getting a room of people with diverse backgrounds together to talk about random ideas, bitch about things and get involved. In Victoria BC, we have one every wednesday night and you're welcome to come. We get everyone from the crazy <redacted> lady to local police officers, civil servants and aspiring politicians coming out. There's academics and civil liberatians, inventors and hackers, folks interested in opendata and in journalism. I've never seen anything like it, and I think we can all credit this unique meet-up, held weekly in the old Canada Pacific Lawn Bowling Club as a powerful social innovation tool. Kris Constable has to get the credit for organizing and keeping the ideas meeting alive. If you're not from Victoria, or another community with a meeting already, set up an ideasmeetings.org meeting in your community -- yes, some meetings will suck as you listen to someone eschew the dangers of wireless radition, but there's that chance for a diamond to be found, a new idea, a new set of resources, and it can end in real, positive, change.
Lets hope it has for ALPR
Chris Parsons will be speaking on a panel about ALPR at the Reboot Privacy and Security conference in Victoria BC which happening on February 16 and 17th.