Edmonton·Exclusive

Alberta privacy commissioner considering investigation of new ID scan system at liquor stores

Alberta's privacy commissioner says she is strongly considering launching an investigation into a liquor retailer's decision to require government ID scans before patrons can enter some of its stores.

Jill Clayton says companies involved did not contact her office before rolling out pilot project

In a report released Wednesday, Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton said public bodies often do not consider whether they should disclose information that is clearly in the public interest under a section of the province's freedom of information act. (CBC)

Alberta's privacy commissioner says she is strongly considering launching an investigation into a liquor retailer's decision to require scans of government ID before patrons can enter some of its stores, a pilot project critics have denounced as a major encroachment on the public's privacy rights.
 
On Monday, liquor retailer Alcanna announced it is testing the new security program, in partnership with Edmonton police, to combat what both police and the provincial government have confirmed is a dramatic escalation in liquor store robberies over the past year.

At a news conference Monday, Alcanna CEO James Burns said the company that developed the scanning system, Patronscan, has "been working with privacy offices in Alberta, Canada, across North America, to make sure this is all privacy compliant with both laws and norms of society."

But in a statement sent to CBC News Tuesday, a spokesperson for commissioner Jill Clayton said that statement is "misleading."

"There has been no consultation with our office on this project," Scott Sibbald wrote. "We first heard of this project through media reports yesterday."

He said Clayton's office will be following up with both Alcanna and Patronscan about this project.

"The commissioner has the power to open an investigation on her own motion, which is being strongly considered."

Sibbald said in the meantime, anyone with concerns about the potential impact on privacy rights can write to Clayton directly.

Company says it dealt with commissioner previously

In an interview Tuesday, Patronscan CEO Alberio Bathory-Frota said his company has dealt with the Alberta privacy commissioner's office in the past. He said when Patronscan launched in 2008, the company submitted a privacy impact assessment to the office for review, and then implemented the commissioner's feedback.

Bathory-Frota said the company similarly submitted a privacy impact assessment to the federal privacy commissioner in 2010.

He said he was most recently in contact with the Alberta privacy commissioner in April 2016, and with the federal commissioner in 2017, when the offices investigated public complaints about Patronscan's technology and its use at bars and nightclubs.

"In response to those complaints, we were found to comply with the respective privacy laws, and if there were any recommendations as part of these findings, we implemented them," Bathory-Frota wrote in a follow-up email to CBC News.

Patronscan CEO Alberio Bathory-Frota says his company submitted a privacy impact assessment for its software to the Alberta privacy commissioner in 2008. (Richard Marion/Radio-Canada)
He said the software used in this new liquor-store pilot project is the same.

"You are scanning ID to allow people in for an age-controlled substance, or an age-controlled product, which is the same as the bar/nightclub."

Following the interview, he said he had emailed Clayton's office so Patronscan can "clarify any misconceptions."

In an emailed statement Tuesday evening, Alcanna CEO James Burns said his company "absolutely respects" its customers' privacy, and said Patronscan is a system that has been widely used in bars and nightclubs in Alberta and across the country for several years. He cited Patronscan's website, which says the software system is compliant with all Canadian privacy laws.

"We have initiated a pilot project using that same technology, Patronscan, to assess its effectiveness in helping protect the safety of our staff, customers and the public," Burns wrote.

Alcanna confirmed the scanning system is now being used at three Edmonton stores:

  • Ace Liquor at 11708 34th St.;
  • Liquor Depot at 252 Manning Crossing;
  • Liquor Depot at 3832 137th Ave.

Burns said there is no set time frame for the pilot project. He said Alcanna next intends to implement the scanning system at a fourth store on Victoria Trail, and he said the company, in cooperation with EPS, is "working with other liquor retailers in the area as well to determine if they are interested in participating."

'Not a government initiative'

The pilot project was announced Monday at a news conference in which Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer touted a new government working group that will examine the recent spike in crimes targeting liquor stores.

When approached Tuesday with more questions, however — including questions about the privacy commissioner's response — both Schweitzer and the government seemingly distanced themselves from the pilot project.

"Minister Schweitzer's office forwarded your email onto the department," an Alberta Justice spokesperson told a CBC News reporter.

"The scanning pilot project is not a government initiative — it's an Alcanna initiative done in partnership with the Edmonton Police Service and Patronscan, so I suggest you contact them for further details."

How the scanning system works

Before entering a liquor store, a patron must scan their identification card. Bathory-Frota said the Patronscan system Alcanna is using is compatible with all identification cards that have a 2-D barcode; he says these all tend to be government-issued photo identification cards.

A patron could not use a passport because it does not have a 2-D barcode. And he said while all provincial government ID cards are compatible, there are some international ID cards that are not.

The scanner is able to tell if the ID is fake, if the person it belongs to is underage, and if the card is expired. The software system is connected to a locking mechanism on the liquor store's door. If there are no problems, the door opens and the patron can enter.

Alcanna CEO James Burns says his company will not have access to any of the personal information collected by Patronscan. (Richard Marion/Radio-Canada)

Bathory-Frota said Patronscan stores a "limited subset" of information from each ID scan: name, date of birth, gender (if that information is on the card), and the first three letters of the patron's postal code. He said the company stores this information for 90 days and then it is permanently deleted from its system.

On Monday, Burns said Alcanna does not have access to this information.

"It is not accessed unless there is a crime, in which case law enforcement will have access to be able to try to see if that helps identify the perpetrator," Burns said.

Former Ontario privacy commissioner raises concerns

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said this new pilot project's collection of the public's personal information is "appalling."

"This is extremely sensitive information," she said. "It should only be used for the intended purposes that it was designed for.

"There is absolutely no reason for these stores to demand that kind of information," continued Cavoukian, who currently leads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University.

"I would just walk away."

She said Patronscan's collection of this information will serve as a "magnet" for hackers and she hopes Clayton's office will launch an investigation of this use of Patronscan's software.

"I don't think a privacy commissioner would sign off on this at all," Cavoukian said.

About the Author

Jennie Russell

Investigative reporter

Jennie Russell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Jennie specializes in accountability journalism and her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Contact Jennie at jennie.russell@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @jennierussell_.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian and Axel Tardieu

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