Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Streeet Sweeper" deployed in British Columbia

Thanks to a friend in BC for sending me this:

Police in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have just completed a trial of license plate recognition technology and are planning a widespread rollout of the technology in Vancouver. It consists of a camera mounted atop a police car that looks up license plates, checks them against a database and alerts the cop at the wheel if the car is "suspicious". The technology can look up about 3000 plates an hour and they apparently find that they are overwhelmed with the number that turn up as being suspicious - about one in fifty.

The technology has apparently had great success in the UK (you might remember this) and some people have concerns with privacy aspects of what is characterised by the BC Attorney General as a "street sweeper".

Sgt. Gord Elias said at a press conference: "The potential of ALPR is up to everyone's imagination. There is absolutely no end to what you could do with it."

Like any surveillance technology, it would be prone to "mission creep". It can target child abductors and terrorists. Or people with unpaid parking tickets, those defaulting on student loans. Or it could be used for profiling by flagging people who choose to drive in suspicious places at suspicious times. The reports I have seen do not say whether the system keeps a record of cars looked up or the location that this takes place. If that were the case, the police would be able to create a log of where you (or your car) has been and at what time.

There was no mention of privacy issues in any of the reports, or how these might have been addressed. I wonder whether a privacy impact assessment was carried out as part of the roll-out. Check out: CTV Video - licence plate scanning. And Vancouver Sun: 1 in 50 drivers 'commits crime' on roads.

The technology isn't exactly brand new. Check out what Bruce Schneier had to say when the technology was rolled out in Connecticut in 2004:

Schneier on Security: License Plate "Guns" and Privacy:

... On the face of it, this is nothing new. The police have always been able to run a license plate. The difference is they would do it manually, and that limited its use. It simply wasn't feasible for the police to run the plates of every car in a parking garage, or every car that passed through an intersection. What's different isn't the police tactic, but the efficiency of the process.

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance.... It's wholesale surveillance.

And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people....

Like the license-plate scanners, the electronic footprints we leave everywhere can be automatically correlated with databases. The data can be stored forever, allowing police to conduct surveillance backwards in time.

The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It's obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.


For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately, and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone's driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.

We need to go further. Criminal penalties are severe in order to create a deterrent, because it is hard to catch wrongdoers. As they become easier to catch, a realignment is necessary. When the police can automate the detection of a wrongdoing, perhaps there should no longer be any criminal penalty attached. For example, both red light cameras and speed-trap cameras all issue citations without any "points" assessed against the driver.

Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's. And with any new police power, we as a society need to take an active role in establishing rules governing its use. To do otherwise is to cede ever more authority to the police.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

This technology will eventually be used in conjunction with red light and speed cameras to catch criminals more quickly. I am all for it even though it might get some civil liberty resistance.