ICBC offers to help identify rioters

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Despite promising that its facial-recognition software will be used only to investigate identity theft and licence fraud, the Insurance Corporation of B.C. has offered to employ it to help police identify participants in the Stanley Cup riot.

The software captures driver's licence photos and is used to flag suspicious matches in ICBC's database for internal investigations. In February the system was upgraded to allow it to match images imported from an external source, such as the police, with those in the system.

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"We didn't put it in place just so the police could use it; we hadn't foreseen this option until [the riot]happened last Wednesday," ICBC spokesman Adam Grossman said on Monday. "But we're very upfront. We want to help find these people, and if we can assist the police within guidelines, we're going to do that."

Police will need a court order to get the information from ICBC, but the Crown corporation can look for matches in its system and inform police of a match as long as investigators file a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Mr. Grossman said.

The police have not yet accepted ICBC's help in identifying Stanley Cup rioters, but Mr. Grossman said the corporation stands ready at any time to assist police "when appropriate and when the proper steps are followed."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has criticized ICBC for its willingness to provide information to police investigating last week's riot, noting that the technology was not introduced for such a purpose.

"It's deeply concerning when we have a government entity offering up database [information]to police for exactly this sort of activity," said BCCLA policy director Micheal Vonn. "If we can do it for this, we can do it for anything, like political demonstrations. They'll go through the proper channels, but they've built a surveillance system that did not exist before, and does not serve the purposes of which they initially sold this technology to the public."

Ms. Vonn is worried that the technology might now be used as a form of social control or population-based surveillance.

"People who apply for a driver's licence are not committing crimes or are not suspected of crimes," she said. "But in case - because you might be suspected of crime in the future - they have a way to track you and to figure out who you are in a public space."

The software could also implicate people who were at the riot but were not breaking the law.

"It's clear if you look at [these images] undoubtedly, there are people engaging in criminal activity," Ms. Vonn said. "But many more are … performing in their own private music videos in their head, doing a dance in front of a broken window or a burning car. They're idiots, but are they criminally responsible? Mostly not."