Broad police vehicle data requests an ‘abuse of power:’ lawyer

RCMP requested vehicle bridge-crossing data with little information

Translink officials repeatedly pushed back against police requests for data on vehicles crossing tolled Lower Mainland bridges, telling officers the requests were too broad and could result in privacy breaches.

Records released under access to information laws show police requested information for specific investigations but at times gave little or no information - sometimes-partial licence plate or minimal vehicle descriptions – in support of requests.

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Officers sought information from Translink because it captured licence and other data from vehicles crossing Golden Ears Bridge and the Port Mann Bridge until the NDP government ended tolling in September 2017.

In some cases, officers asked for records of all vehicles moving across bridges between certain hours.

“This seems really illegal to ask for such broad categories,” B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) lawyer Meghan McDermott said.

A June 2016 Translink response to a such a request said providing blanket data about thousands of vehicles would be handing over “a list of potential innocent personal information to an officer.”

McDermott called the requests “an abuse of power.” She said if a police information request appears to have no defined purpose, “it’s incumbent on Translink to protect that information.”

In one case, police had no licence plate or information on a vehicle’s make or model. “How could that be said to apply to a specific investigation?” McDermott asked.

In urgent requests, records show Translink suggested police seek warrants, a recommendation McDermott called ‘the gold standard’ for police seeking information. “Anything other than that is not good enough for the protection of civil rights and the protection of privacy,” she said.

Bridge tolls ended in September 2017 but security cameras still surveil the bridges.

Other agencies requesting information included Canada Border Services and ICBC as well as conservation officers.

The sharing of licence plate data with police is not unusual. B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Act allows disclosure of information “to a public body or a law enforcement agency in Canada to assist in a specific investigation.”

The BCCLA also recognizes there are circumstances where police should be given information. McDermott said B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) guidelines say information can be released it relates to a focussed investigation.

The OIPC has already expressed concerns about the collection of licence plate data. In a 2012 report, then-privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said law enforcement agencies had openly discussed retaining data not pertinent to investigations.

“Collecting personal information for law enforcement purposes does not extend to retaining information on the suspicionless activities of citizens just in case it may be useful in the future,” Denham said.

Denham said B.C.’s Automated Licence Plate Recognition Program could be used to enforce traffic bylaws, collect tolls on bridges and roadways, track movements at border crossings, and identify persons of interest to law enforcement.

Further, there are concerns the program could be used as a surveillance tool, where data about the location and activities of law-abiding citizens is stored indefinitely and used for purposes other than that for which it was collected.

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