Although the RCMP have now been given immediate access to City of Surrey traffic cameras in the fight against gang violence, there is a line Mounties are not attempting to cross.
They aren’t proposing to use the 330 city intersection cameras to rapidly scan licence plates and check drivers against policing databases, as now happens with the Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) system on use on about 40 police cars in B.C.
In theory, a stationary system of cameras integrated with ALPR could act as a surveillance network, tracking the movements of known gangsters or quickly identifying suspect vehicles fleeing the scene of a shooting – if that was allowed here as it is in the U.K.
“That’s not what exists here in British Columbia or anywhere else in Canada,” RCMP Dep. Commissioner Craig Callens said, giving a short answer of “no” when asked if such a London-style system is being pursued.
“I have not been involved in any discussions to this point,” he told Black Press. “And I think to do so would require some considerable consultation with the provincial privacy commissioner.”
Asked if it could help reduce gang violence, B.C.’s top RCMP officer responded:
“I would never discount the potential of the benefit that it would bring to policing. But I think like anything there is another side and a balanced approach that needs to be taken.”
Surrey earlier this month promised RCMP 24-hour access to its traffic cameras so officers can view video overnight, without waiting for city hall to open.
The police car-mounted ALPR cameras have been used almost entirely by traffic patrols to detect and recover stolen vehicles, and, primarily, to intercept prohibited, unlicensed or uninsured drivers.
Some additional cars are flagged if the driver is in a national policing database as someone under surveillance, on parole or a known associate of a person of interest, despite a B.C. privacy commissioner recommendation in 2012 that they be removed.
But a University of the Fraser Valley study in 2015 suggested much more could be done with the licence-scanning system to tackle more serious crime.
“ALPR is not being used in Surrey to its full potential,” according to the report by UFV criminologists.
In other jurisdictions, they noted, the second most common use is for crime intelligence – using ALPR equipped vehicles to patrol high-crime areas to run plates, collect data and identify and track potential suspects.
In B.C., “hit” data – where a detected vehicle or associated driver matches a police database entry – can be kept up to two years.
Non-hit data – on drivers and vehicles who don’t match the police watch lists – can be kept for only 90 days.
Police in other jurisdictions have much more time to use the data to track suspect movements, particularly for counter-terrorism. The U.K. keeps non-hit data from its 3,000 cameras for two years and that can be extended to six.
Track gangsters, report suggested
The UFV report suggested adding licence plates of known gang members to the watch list to generate data on their movements for investigation purposes for up to two years.
Likewise, it said, the data could be used by analysts to uncover useful patterns, or track drug or prolific offenders and thereby target enforcement. Other options, it said, include scanning plates of vehicles parked at bars and restaurants frequented by gangs.
Currently, police can’t simply mine the ALPR data for broader pattern analysis – they can request data on where and when a specific plate was detected, but need a reason and an active file.
While the UFV researchers argue a case can be made by police to expand ALPR use to criminal investigations, the report cautions that could be blocked by the courts or privacy watchdogs.
B.C. Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn said more transparency and accountability on the use of ALPR is needed, particularly if there’s any push to widen the use of data on the locations of drivers who aren’t suspected of anything.
“When the people of British Columbia were sold this idea it was going to be about stolen vehicles,” Vonn said.
“If you want to keep it for months just in case you might want to know where anybody was at any given time, that’s a really problematic use. That is essentially dragnet surveillance of everyone on the road – a very invasive geo-location tracking of the population.
Map of City of Surrey traffic cameras.