Make police chiefs’ associations transparent, says B.C. privacy commissioner

After years spent covering the issue, journalist Rob Wipond is finally getting some transparency into how police chief organizations operate in BC!


Provincial Liberals Policy Launder for Federal Conservatives?

David Eby, formerly with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and now a MLA with the NDP, has written a brief piece about forthcoming BC provincial legislation. The Missing Persons Act would let provincial authorities:

issue emergency orders to telephone companies and internet service providers to get access to your browsing history, text messages, e-mail, voice mail, banking records, you name it. If the companies or individuals don’t consent to the access, police can go to court without notice to you to get your records ordered to be handed over. Any record you can think of is covered by the new law.

However, there would be no notice to the individual(s) affected that such a request had been made, regardless of whether it was appropriate.

This kind of concern over finding missing people before they’re formally missing is something that the federal government of Canada has previously used to justify its lawful access legislation. Access to subscriber data (though less expansively than envisioned under the BC legislation) was presented as useful in missing persons’ cases, to return stolen property, and more. To date, the federal government has failed to push through its lawful access legislation, though the recent version (C-13) is scheduled for second reading in the coming weeks.

Of note, the BC Liberal party has a substantial number of past-lieutenants from the Prime Minister’s Office that have passed through. Also, the Chief Constable of Vancouver has been amongst the most fervent advocates for the federal lawful access legislation. As such, I have to wonder how much the proposed BC Act is an attempt to address genuine provincial issues and how much it is meant to quietly start introducing or laundering a flavour of the federal lawful access legislation. I also have to wonder if, after this legislation is passed, the Chief Constable of Vancouver will back off of his federal advocacy: was he trying to solve a particular provincial issue by way of lobbying for changes to federal laws?

It’s quite sad, though, that the meagre consensus that was achieved in the federal lawful access fights – that there would be some reporting system, however sad – was excised by the BC Liberals. It’s hard to claim transparency as a political party when you actively undermine attempts to inject it into new (to say nothing of previously past) legislation.


Will the BC Services Card Be Used for Online Voting?

Last year Rob Shaw wrote a piece for the Times Colonist about online voting in British Columbia. (This is a Bad Idea by the way, for reasons that are expounded elsewhere.) At the very end of his article, we read:

B.C.’s flirtation with online voting coincides with changes to its information and privacy laws last year that paved the way for high-tech identity cards.

The government has said people will one day be able to use the cards to verify their identity and access Internet-based government services, including, potentially, online voting.

No government document released under FOIA laws that I’ve read has stated voting as a driver of the card. However, this isn’t an indictment of Shaw’s reporting but of the government’s unwillingness to fully disclose documents pertaining to the Services Card.

To be clear: there is no good reason to believe that the Services Card will be particularly helpful in combating the core problems related to online voting. It won’t actually verify that the same person associated with the Card is casting the ballot. It won’t ensure that the person is voting in a non-coerced manner. It won’t guarantee that malware hasn’t affected the computer to ‘vote’ for whomever the malware writer wants voted for.

The Services Card is (seemingly) a solution looking for a problem. Voting is not one problem to which the Card is the solution.


As Denham points out, though, the RCMP is not under her jurisdiction, so she can’t bring them into line. But the RCMP simply shouldn’t be running a surveillance system on people who haven’t broken any law, and they shouldn’t be able to take advantage of the federal-provincial jurisdictional split to do so either.

This means Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart is going to have to school the Mounties on what privacy rights really mean, and why setting up a massive “just in case” database is not only a bad idea, it’s against the law.

Ubiquitous Police Surveillance and Guilt by Location

The Times Colonist has a particularly good opinion piece concerning authorities’ use of automatic license plate recognition. This technology was recently subject of an investigation in British Columbia, with the provincial information and privacy commissioner asserting that many of the current uses of the technology must stop. For more information, you can read the decision  (.pdf) or some press coverage about the decision.

When speaking about authorities’ interests in retaining locational information about people who aren’t immediately of interest to police, the author of the opinion piece writes:

And the concept [of collecting such information] goes against the golden thread that winds its way throughout our justice system – the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. A person shouldn’t become the focus of an investigation just because he or she happened to drive along a certain street at a certain time.

But a person who hasn’t done anything wrong shouldn’t worry, right? Ask that to people whose lives have been ruined when they have been investigated or charged for a crime and later exonerated. That stigma of being the target of a police investigation is not easily erased, even when a person is cleared of all wrongdoing.

This latter paragraph – that the stigma of a false investigation can significantly alter a person’s life possibilities for an extensive period of time – is often forgotten about or glossed over when reporting on new policing surveillance practices. In an era where information is in abundance, and the attention span to monitor stories and issues is at a premium, a false charge may be legally overturned without the population more generally ever correcting their false impressions. This can create a long-standing disadvantage for falsely accused person as they try to carry on with their lives.

Moreover, the very potential that information could be used against you turns the (popular) understanding of guilt on its head: instead of authorities clearly linking a person’s presence at a location with a crime, it becomes the responsibility of each individual to demonstrate the innocence of being in place X at time Y. Given that these license plate scanners can capture where people are, at any time of the day, there isn’t a necessary reason that a person will know why they were at X at Y. While such oversights ought to be understood as the reasonable failings of a reasonable human’s mind, the danger is that an inability to justify one’s presence at a particular place could be taken as an indication of potential guilt. As a result of such ‘suspicious’ behaviour an individual who was just driving at the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’ could be subjected to more intrusive police surveillance, simply because a scanner identified a person at a particular place at a particular time.

Fortunately, the privacy commissioner has significantly come out against this ubiquitous form of surveillance. Her stance should limit these dystopian risks of license plate scanners in her jurisdiction. Now it’s up to the authorities to respect the decision and mediate how and why they use the technology.