Monday 6 February 2012

Massive Surveillance Project in Canada

The current issue (Feb. 2012) of small magazine published in British Columbia, Focus, contains a disturbing article by Rob Wipond, entitled Hidden Surveillance.

“This will revolutionize the way we police,” proclaimed Vancouver police in The Province, a Vancouver newspaper.

The technology is called Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR). I'm quoting Wipond's article:

The RCMP and BC government piloted ALPR in 2006 and have expanded it rapidly. BC now has 42 police cruisers equipped with the technology, including one with the Victoria Police Department (VicPD), one in Saanich, and two in our regional Integrated Road Safety Unit.  

Normally, area police manually key in plate numbers to check suspicious cars in the databases of the Canadian Police Information Centre and ICBC. With ALPR, for $27,000, a police cruiser is mounted with two cameras and software that can read licence plates on both passing and stationary cars. According to the vendors, thousands of plates can be read hourly with 95-98 percent accuracy. These plate numbers are automatically compared for “hits” against ICBC and Canadian Police Information Centre “hot lists” of stolen vehicles; prohibited, unlicensed and uninsured drivers; and missing children. When such “hits” occur, plate photos are automatically stamped with time, date, and GPS coordinates, and stored. The officer will investigate details in the above-mentioned databases directly, and may pull over suspect vehicles.
At least, that’s how the popular story goes, and it sounds wonderful. However, some news stories have quoted academics or civil rights advocates worried about what else this plate recognition technology is, or could be, used for. ALPR was developed by the British government in the 1990s to track movements of the Irish Republican Army. By 2007, the International Association of Police Chiefs was issuing a resolution calling for “all countries” to begin using ALPR and sharing population surveillance data for fighting gangs and terrorism. Today in the UK, ALPR is used for charging tolls, “risk profiling” travellers, and tracking or intercepting people using cars photographed near protests.
Mr. Wipond used the Canadian Freedom of Information Act to request some documentation pertaining to ALPR. In August, 2011 he received a 77-page document titled "Final Revision", and dated October 17, 2009. Wipond summarizes the document:
According to this document, the categories of people that generate alerts or “hits” in the ALPR system, alongside car thieves and child kidnappers, are much broader than has ever been disclosed publicly. And information on these people’s movements is being retained in a database for two or more years. For example, though you may not be stopped, your car is a “hit” and its movements are tracked and recorded if you’re on parole or probation or, in some cases, you’ve simply been accused of breaking a criminal law, federal or provincial statute, or municipal bylaw. You’re also a hit if you ever attended court to establish legal custody of your child, if you’ve ever had an incident due to a mental health problem which police attended, or if you’ve been linked to someone under investigation. The list of hit categories continues through three more pages, and a fourth page that the RCMP completely redacted.
This goes far above and beyond our expectations of "normal" police behaviour. In my opinion, this is a flat-out admission that the citizen is guilty: we just have to figure out, Guilty of What?
The article can be viewed at If you wish, you can download the complete issue as a PDF file from the same page.

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