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New system checking every plate entering Sault unique in Ontario

Ontario's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says it is not aware of any other community in the province using automated licence plate readers to scan every vehicle entering and exiting a community
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A vehicle’s licence plate information is photographed by an automatic license plate reader as it exits Sault Ste. Marie on Trunk Road.

A pair of camera systems that scan every licence plate entering and leaving the Sault will augment technology already used by the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service and the province’s privacy commissioner office says there’s nothing else like it operating in Ontario.

Earlier this month, the department announced two new sets of stationary automated licence plate readers (ALPR), one located on Great Northern Road and another on Trunk Road. Each set of two cameras monitor every vehicle that enters and exits Sault Ste. Marie and compares the results to a list for ‘licence plates of interest’ at the east and north highway access points.

Similar units are mounted on many of the police cruisers that patrol the city.

In a recent interview, chief Hugh Stevenson said one of the benefits of the Sault’s geography is the bottleneck of traffic at each highway entrance to the city.

“The thought was, right from the beginning, how can we utilize the technology we have and the geography we have to improve public safety in this community?” he said.

Planning for the project began about two years ago, said Stevenson. The new system was activated on June 13.

Stevenson said one of the important factors in rolling out the ALPR is transparency.

“We started extensive consultation with the privacy commissioner folks and worked through everything they asked us to do. We did that and more. We have been really open with the public,” he said.

That transparency includes letting the public know exactly where they are, with signage disclosing to drivers what information is being collected.

“This is where the cameras are, we are not trying to hide anything,” said Stevenson of the signs. 

The system is constantly scanning cars entering and exiting the community to look for license plates of interest. Stevenson said that could be plates associated with an Amber Alert, human trafficking, missing persons or for drugs. Those plates can be entered manually by Sault Police or shared from a national police database or other intelligence services.

“The opportunity here is that, through a variety of intelligence sources, we can identify their vehicles and know when they are in our community. We can then investigate much more thoroughly and hopefully prevent deaths in this community,” said Stevenson. “All police chiefs and services have to think outside of the box and we have to think about ways of continually protecting this community from the poisons of drugs, from people abducting children and human trafficking.”

Stevenson said the tool can be used in a number of situations, criminal or non-criminal.

“For example, if we have a person in mental health crisis that is in a vehicle and the family is concerned and we don’t know the direction they are travelling — we can put plates associated with them into the system that will go to a designated officer and that officer will be notified immediately when that vehicle and a photo crosses a particular line in the highway,” he said.

Twenty years ago police would have to rely on spot checks or random pull overs to achieve a similar goal.

“Now we can do it in an instant from a cell phone,” said Stevenson. “This is a huge tool for us.”

The information collected by the system is wiped from memory every 24 hours, said Stevenson.

“Only designated vehicles of interest are kept obviously for investigative reasons on or about the time they are expected to be in our community,” he said.

According to a statement from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario, the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service reached out to its office in August of 2020 to request a consultation in advance of adding the stationary ALPR at the entrances to the city.

IPC said it is not aware of any other communities in Ontario that have a similar setup of stationary ALPR technologies at the perimeter of city limits.

Organizations are not required to consult with IPC regarding proposed surveillance programs or technologies, but must respect Ontario’s laws when it comes to privacy, transparency, and human rights, as well as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. IPC also expects police departments using technologies like ALPR to conduct a thorough privacy impact assessment (PIA).

”It’s important to note that the IPC never endorses or approves programs as part of these consultations. The fact that a police service has consulted with the IPC does not necessarily mean that it has implemented all the IPC’s recommendations, and is not a certification that its activities comply with privacy and access laws,” said the statement from IPC. 

Kris Klein is a privacy lawyer with Ottawa-based nNovation LLP. He told SooToday there can be privacy concerns with the use of technologies ALPR, but said those concerns can be managed.

Klein said doing the privacy impact assessment is one way to help mitigate risk.

”I also think that they may have taken privacy into consideration here because of the way that the system purges license plates that are not “of interest” to the police,” said Klein. ”All in all, it’s difficult to say without seeing their PIA, but my sense is that they might be implementing this technology properly.”

Stevenson said the cost of the system is minimal and would be offset by provincial grants.

“I have had people on social media acknowledge this is great for public safety, good for the community, good use of technology,” he said.

Although it isn’t impossible to cross Canada by road without passing through Sault Ste. Marie, a great deal of cross-country traffic does flow through the city. Stevenson hopes the ALPR will act as a deterrent.

“Absolutely. If you were selling drugs and you knew you could have your vehicle seized as an asset forfeiture and your dope and go to jail and that we know when you’re in our city, it certainly raises greater inhibitions for the criminal subculture to come here. I wouldn’t say it stops them but it certainly raises some concerns for them,” he said. “I would suggest this particular model will be replicated at different services across Ontario.”