Automatic licence plate scanners skpic

Automated licence plate scanners are already in use by police in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Estevan, Weyburn, Prince Albert, Regina, Yorkton, Swift Current and White City. (SGI )

As it prepares to distribute more automatic licence plate scanners to police around the province, Saskatchewan Government Insurance says it's keeping people's privacy in mind.

"Of course, privacy is a big concern at SGI," company spokeswoman Kelley Brinkworth said.

Another seven automatic licence plate scanners will be distributed to police departments around Saskatchewan this summer, bringing the total number to 20, SGI said.

The provincially-owned insurance company is spending $485,000 on the systems, which are used in police cars. As the police cruiser passes other vehicles, a camera snaps images, decodes the letters and numbers from license plates and searches a database for matches.

Last week, the company said it would be expanding the number of licence plate scanners and now it's providing more details.

Number of scanners being increased to 20 from 13

The seven new scanners will be given to RCMP detachments and municipal police in six communities:

  • North Battleford (RCMP)
  • Prince Albert (one for RCMP, one for municipal police)
  • Estevan
  • Moose Jaw
  • Regina
  • Weyburn

The systems use high-speed cameras to record licence plate numbers, which are then automatically matched against police and SGI databases.

Police and SGI say the devices can be used to help police find people who have suspended licences or are driving unregistered vehicles.

In situations where members of the public report licence plates of suspected drunk drivers or dangerous drivers, they can be used to scan for those vehicles as well.

Data will be cleared from systems, SGI says

Brinkworth said if the licence plate scans do not result in 'hits', the information will be deleted. 

"If it's not of interest, it will be cleared off the screen," Brinkworth said.

Automated licence plate scanning has been expanded in Ontario and other provinces, but it's also been controversial in some jurisdictions around North America.

In B.C., police changed their procedures after the province's privacy commissioner raised concerns about how long 'non-hit' data was being stored on RCMP computers.

Boston halts program

In Boston, the police department stopped using automatic licence plate scanners late last year amid concerns that alarms were going off regarding vehicles that had no issues.

Sean Musgrave, who reports on police and privacy issues for the Boston Globe, said his investigation found many police departments in his state received grants to buy licence plate scanners, but there were no strings attached.

"Most police departments in Massachusetts did not have any policies to govern the use of this equipment … even basic privacy protections or restrictions on how they could be used," Musgrave told CBC News.

Asked about the kinds of questions people in Saskatchewan should be considering, Musgrave said the public should inquire if there are written policies regarding the use of automatic licence plate scanners.

Such policies should include how officers will and will not use the technology, how long the information will be stored, and what level of clearance is required to access scanned licence plates, he said.

Errors can happen, insurance company says

SGI's Brinkworth said the company realizes there can be occasional errors with licence plate scans.  

SGI uploads its data three times a week for police services to access, but since it is not updated in real-time, there can be errors, she said.

In response to questions about SGI's approach to licence plate scanners and privacy, the company issued this statement: "Customer privacy is extremely important to SGI. SGI has contracts in place with law enforcement with regards to the customer information they can access, and that information is treated with the utmost care."

With files from Kevin O'Connor