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Kelowna's robo cops have motorists on edge

One Kelowna parking enforcement officer is a real machine, capable of writing hundreds of tickets an hour.

The city is among a growing number in B.C. using automated licence-plate recognition technology to nab anyone overstaying in time-limited zones. Whistler and North Vancouver have similar systems, and Victoria is shopping for one.

The technology is boosting revenue and making tickets harder to dispute. But it's also raising privacy fears.

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"It sort of acts as an electronic chalking system," Stephen Fleming, Kelowna's city clerk, said of the white Ford sedan with roof- and fender-mounted cameras that has patrolled the city's streets since August, 2009.

"We used to put chalk on tires," he said. "That can be a problem in the rain. The camera has the ability to operate regardless of the time of day or the weather conditions."

As the car rolls down the street, an on-board computer recognizes and records licence plates, tagging each one with GPS location data.

"Say you're in a two-hour zone. You'd set it for two hours and you'd drive back some time after two hours has expired. Any vehicle that's in the same location it was when you drove by previously, the screen tells you that," said Mr. Fleming.

Capable of scanning thousands of cars an hour, the system is more efficient than human chalkers. "We have a stronger case. If someone wants to fight the ticket, we can produce the pictures and the GPS tracking as well."

Mr. Fleming said Kelowna's ticket fine revenue has grown this year, because of the new system, and the fact it has given officers more time.

"It certainly has enabled us to patrol more areas of the city using the same resources."

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The problem is that municipalities are left to decide how much information to record, and how long to keep it, said Patrick Egan, acting manager for investigations and mediations at B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"The concern is that the licence-plate recognition system could potentially be a very broad surveillance technique and it could collect a lot of personal information that could affect people's privacy," Mr. Egan said.

Some systems can collect more information than is needed, he said. And cameras may also capture drivers' images, generating records of their movements.

"In our view, the longer you retain it, the greater the danger it will be used for other purposes."

The OIPC discourages use of surveillance technology when less intrusive means are also effective, Mr. Egan said.

With more cities weighing the technology's benefits, and more systems hitting the market, the commissioner should issue guidelines, said Vincent Gogolek, policy director for the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

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"Especially for smaller municipalities who might not be as aware of these types of concerns," he said, citing Kelowna's policy of purging data that doesn't result in a ticket at the end of each patrol.

Victoria's parking department issued a tender in September for a system to patrol the fringes of the downtown core.

It aims to have the system on the street early in the new year, with an eye to reducing the number of disputed tickets. Each year, drivers fight 1,800 of the 50,000 tickets issued in time-limited zones.

Dwayne Kalynchuk, Victoria's manager of engineering, said his staff will vet it new system for privacy concerns, and submit an impact assessment to the OIPC.

"Once this is adopted and put in place, we'll make sure appropriate policies are in use. Our intent is not to retain data," Mr. Kalynchuk said.

But Mr. Gogolek questioned whether Victoria's needs aren't well-enough served by chalk-wielding Commissionaires.

"You have 1,800 challenged parking tickets, does that justify bringing in camera surveillance? I'm not sure that it does."

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