Riot photos may be searched against ICBC records

Civil libertarians worry about social media lynch mob

ICBC’s offer to let police use its new photo database of B.C. drivers to identify rioters from images circulating online opens an alarming new chapter of anti-privacy surveillance, according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Policy analyst Micheal Vonn said it’s “deeply disturbing” the facial recognition software ICBC uses mainly to detect driver’s licence and insurance fraud may quickly be put to other police purposes.

“We are in a new world because of the amount of information that was collected through social media and the ability to run that information through population-level biometric databases,” she said.

“Your face itself – recorded anywhere in public space – will now be traceable to your identity.”

Vancouver Police have already received a million images and thousands of videos of activity during the June 15 Stanley Cup riot, much of it crowd-sourced from hundreds of cameraphone users.

Vonn said the implications go far beyond whether those who destroyed cars or looted stores that night get punished in court for their crimes.

Many people in the photos who are identified with ICBC’s help will never be charged but will be forever flagged in police databases as associated with the riot, she said.

Police may treat them differently in future encounters, she said, and the incident may pop up as a negative contact in criminal record checks for jobs or volunteer opportunities.

International travel could even be blocked if the data finds its way into the hands of U.S. Homeland Security or foreign governments.

Those affected may be guilty of nothing more than failing to exit the riot zone fast enough, she said.

Technology like ICBC’s software creates the potential for “function creep” and more troubling possibilities, she said.

British authorities already use automated licence plate recognition software – which B.C. police forces also have – to intercept vehicles of known protesters en route to political demonstrations, Vonn said.

Spokesman Adam Grossman said ICBC has only recently gained the ability to import external photos and then detect matches with photos of drivers in the database.

ICBC would tell officers if an image matches a record in the database, he said, but wouldn’t share the name until police get a court order.

“It’s a very new development for us to be able to put images into our system,”  Grossman said. “At the moment, it’s an offer and that’s all there is at this stage.”

ICBC has about 100 claims of auto-related damage ranging from broken windshields to burnt or flipped cars.

Vonn said it’s “troubling” social media vigilantees are using Facebook and other sites to circulate images of rioters, identify them and demand punishment.

One Maple Ridge student has been suspended from the national water polo team and other alleged rioters have reportedly lost jobs or academic placements.

“We have people leaving their neighbourhoods because they don’t feel safe,” she said. “We have not caught up with the ramifications of all of this new technology.”

Facebook has pulled down some groups and pages.

But Vonn said Premier Christy Clark added fuel by vowing the rioters would not be able to live anonymously.

“Troublemaking can no longer be an anonymous activity,” Clark said. “As much as  we are able, we are going to publicize who you are so your family, your friends your boss will know the role you played.”

It’s one thing to report a suspected crime to police, Vonn said, but another to post photos and names on line and tell the world who you believe is a crtiminal.

“There are laws that apply and defamation is one of them.”

Rob Gordon, director of SFU’s school of criminology, said the public shaming of the rioters goes beyond anything he’s seen before.

“In many respects it may prove to be more effective than any sanction the criminal justice system can impose,” he said. “Primarily because it’s instantaneous and unencumbered by legal procedure.”

The photos and video will make it easier to prosecute offenders, he said, and it’s spurred several to turn themselves in or publicly apologize.

But Gordon said defence lawyers are also likely to call for milder penalties, arguing the outed rioters have already paid a heavy price in the court of public opinion.

He predicts the punishments will be severe anyway.

“You have to show if people engage in this stuff there’s going to be consequences,” he said, adding use of the ICBC database is justified.

Gordon said far too few police were deployed to handle the riot and officers were “totally overwhelmed.”

A regional police force could have made a difference, he said, because backup squads from across Metro Vancouver could have been in position and ready to respond.

Gordon also said key errors were made in failing to follow the recommendations from the 1994 Stanley Cup riot.

Newspaper boxes and anything else that could have been ammunition for the mob should have been removed, he said.