So much for civil liberties....now the police can track movements for innocent people for up to 3 months...but it gets worse:
Plate readers revolutionize policing
BC Local News, Page 01, 12-May-2008
Police cameras that quickly scan thousands of passing licence plates for likely offenders are making it dead easy to catch car thieves, prohibited drivers and other scofflaws. And that's just the tip of the iceberg of potential uses for the technology that police think will be a transformative, even revolutionary crime-fighting tool.
The Automated Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) system has civil liberty and privacy watchdogs twitchy.
But senior RCMP officers hope to get clearance to expand it from being a Lower Mainland-only pilot project with just nine cars to between 30 and 60 camera-equipped cars across B.C. in as little as five years. Other forces across Canada are poised to follow B.C.'s lead.
"It's very promising," said Insp. Norm Gaumont, the head of traffic services for the RCMP in B.C. "This system will change the way we do policing in a major way."
Instead of manually typing in a plate on an in-car computer to search the national policing database, the cameras automatically scan passing plates in front and on both sides of the cruiser.
"We can do up to 3,000 plates an hour," Gaumont said. "As we're driving, this thing is constantly looking."
It works equally well whether officers are slowly sweeping parking lots or flying down the freeway – cameras can read plates of oncoming cars speeding by at 160 km/h.
The system compares plate numbers to data downloaded to the car computer each day. The in-car computer pings as it detects hits, flashing up the vehicle image and data on its probable occupant. Officers instantly know if the car is stolen, if it isn't insured, or if the probable driver is unlicensed or prohibited from driving because of past drunk driving convictions. They also know if the driver has past convictions, a history of violence or owns guns.
Turn an ALPR-equipped car loose on any major Lower Mainland roadway and it quickly finds violators who might otherwise have been invisible to police.
More than 70 per cent of hits are unlicensed drivers, 20 per cent are for uninsured vehicles, 8.4 per cent are prohibited drivers and 0.9 per cent are stolen vehicles. Since February 2007, ALPR cars have read 540,000 licence plates, matched 9,000 of those as hits in the database, leading officers to take action in 3,000 cases that ultimately resulted in 1,075 charges laid.
Gaumont says those caught often have a long history of dangerous or drunk driving and are considered the worst of the worst."You really want to keep them off the road," he said. "This allows you to quickly scan and identify the bad apples." Matches sometimes come in so fast officers can't keep up.
In one case, seven different vehicles of unlicensed or uninsured drivers were being towed simultaneously after being detected by a single ALPR car.
Driving violators and car thieves aren't the only targets. Amber Alerts are programmed into the system to spot child abductors. And the RCMP plan to add plates of convicts out on probation. That would allow officers to detect the vehicle of someone released on curfew conditions not to be out at night, for example – something that might help keep prolific offenders on track.
Sex offenders released under condition to stay away from schools could likewise be detected. "You could easily have this thing set up and all of a sudden pick up a vehicle that's not supposed to be around a school yard," Gaumont said. "It gives you an individual you should be checking on."
ALPR police cars converging on a murder scene could record the plates of all vehicles leaving the area, serving up a raft of potential suspects and witnesses for investigators to pursue.
"Let's face it, that's extremely beneficial," Gaumont said. "There's great potential."
All licence plate numbers detected are kept on file for three months and "hits" (where the driver is in the national police database for a warrant, charge or past conviction) are kept for two years. Each reading links a vehicle to a particular time and place. That means it may also be possible for investigators to run a plate number through the ALPR archive to see where it's been recently detected.
A torched car with dead people inside might be an obvious candidate for a search of its movement history. Could ALPR cameras record cars visiting a sex trade area where a serial killer stalks prostitutes and thereby tighten the net much faster on the next Robert Pickton?
Gaumont is more reluctant to discuss these possibilities. And he plays down the suggestion that police could even mount a network of stationary ALPR cameras in the region to track the movements of vehicles of interest.
"We don't want to give the public the perception we're keeping all these plates, all this information, we're watching you forever," Gaumont said. "There's this paranoia in Canada about Big Brother watching."
Michael Vonn, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, is among the alarmed."This allows for the kind of surveillance of movement that people don't understand," she said. A licence plate is publicly visible with no expectation of privacy. And the ALPR system in theory only accelerates the police ability to run plates through their database.
But Vonn argues the effect is profound when plates can be rapidly analyzed and the resulting stream of data forms a whole new map of people's movements that can be archived."Three months worth of information on you as a completely innocent human being is collected by the police presumably in case we find out you've done something wrong," she said. "This is the new intelligent policing. It is one more incremental step in creating this vast matrix of surveillance."
Vonn worries about "function creep" – that once the system is in place police might make expanded use of it beyond what they now claim is intended.
It might seem like a good idea to record plates of cars fleeing a murder scene, or those parked at a Hells Angels clubhouse or those of revelers entering the Merritt Mountain Music Festival (which was done last year). But Vonn asks whether that would extend to monitoring lawful protesters at the 2010 Olympics.
Counter-terrorism is an expected use of ALPR. B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis also has concerns about how the system will be used and how long data will be stored. The RCMP must meet the requirements of the federal privacy commissioner, but ALPR also has to pass muster with Loukidelis if it's to be used by municipal forces. "I can't on the face of it see why you would be keeping benign information," he said, referring to the archiving of non-hits. "That's a question I'll be asking." He said he has an open mind and much of the police vision for ALPR may be supportable.
The next step for Gaumont is to finalize his submission to the federal privacy commissioner. He wants that done by October. The big challenge now is deciding how to store all the data and keep it secure.
If those technical challenges are solved and the system is cleared to expand, there will be other practical problems. Each arrest means more paperwork and time spent.
Gaumont worries ALPR may unleash a monster: the volume of potential arrests it generates may overwhelm officers and even the courts."Personally I think once we have 30 (ALPR cars) in place, we'll be hard-pressed to keep up with them." Road renegades revealed. A staggering number of drivers have no right to be on the road.
That's the conclusion police have come to through their use of the Automated Licence Plate Recognition System. The constantly scanning cameras detect astounding numbers of motorists who are either unlicensed, banned from driving or in an uninsured vehicle.
"We were surprised at the extent – just how many people are driving with no licences," said RCMP Insp. Norm Gaumont.
In many cases, the drivers without licences had lost them after being busted for impaired or dangerous driving – even street racing.
"They just go out there and drive anyway," Gaumont said. "We have these very high-risk drivers who are every day on our roadways." He said most believe there's almost no chance they'll be caught.
It's the same story with uninsured vehicles. Some drivers just stop buying insurance because past accidents or violations have driven the cost into the stratosphere. For them, Gaumont said, it makes sense to just go uninsured and pay the $598 fine if they do get caught. He notes police have to catch and fine an uninsured violator at least three times before the penalties add up to what most would pay in insurance.
"What we're finding is people are opting out of the system." Gaumont believes the fines for driving without insurance are too low in B.C. By comparison, Alberta dings its uninsured drivers for $2,000.
ICBC officials say they believe the number of motorists who illegally go without insurance is less than two per cent of drivers and that the problem is worse in other jurisdictions.
ALPR is also being used against another group of violators.
Ultra-fast motorcycle riders routinely ignore police and just speed away even faster.
But officers who read their plates using ALPR are now being ordered to ticket the owners after the fact for street racing and seize their bikes.
BY THE NUMBERS
Since February 2007:
- 500,000 plates detected by RCMP licence plate cameras
- 9,000 of those popped up as hits for unlicensed/prohibited drivers, uninsured vehicle or stolen vehicle.
- In 3,000 cases police took action.
- In 1,000 cases charges were laid.
- More than 95 per cent accuracy in plate recognition so far.
- Nine police cars are so far equipped with ALPR. (Three are unmarked.)
- Units cost $35,000 each.
Offenders caught by ALPR-equipped RCMP traffic cars since February 2007 include:
- 516 ticketed for driving without a licence
- 139 charged for driving while prohibited
- 111 ticketed for driving without insurance
- 85 ticketed for other motor vehicle violations
- 9 charged/seizures for drug possession
- 6 stolen vehicles recovered
- 6 charges of possession of stolen property
- 5 charged for impaired driving
- 9 issued 24-hour driving suspensions
- 3 arrested on outstanding warrants
- 2 arrested in breach of probation
(Stats do not include IMPACT integrated auto-theft team, which does not release numbers of stolen cars recovered through ALPR.)
RCMP say ALPR would be a good fit in any B.C. city with significant traffic, such as Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo, Courtenay-Comox and Campbell River.