How roadside speed signs in the U.S. could be tracking you using Canadian-made tech

Nick Faris


October 4, 2018


'Everybody who drives on a road and passes one of those signs can probably assume their licence plate has been captured'

In this Feb. 2017 file photo, cars line up to cross the Canadian border into the United States in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images

Canadian drivers who venture south of the border can soon expect to have their licence plate logged surreptitiously by the United States’ newest public surveillance tool: roadside speed signs.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency plans to expand its efforts to track licence plates around the country by embedding recognition technology inside digital displays that indicate the speed at which a vehicle is travelling, the news website Quartz reported this week. In addition to fulfilling their chief purpose — warning people who drive faster than the limit to slow down — the retrofitted versions of these signs will capture plate information that law enforcement agencies can store for future reference.

Some American and Canadian police services, including forces in Ontario and B.C., use licence-plate readers to spot drivers with an outstanding warrant or offence. Typically, the cameras that register plate data are mounted in plain sight on top of a cruiser. Concealing the devices inside roadside signs appears to be a novel idea, and one that privacy advocates worry could be used to retain information on law-abiding drivers without them even knowing they’re being recorded.

“Everybody who drives on a road and passes one of those signs can probably assume their licence plate has been captured,” said Brenda McPhail, a privacy and surveillance expert at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “The thing that’s very troubling about the American program is that it’s being done covertly and indiscriminately.”

The implications for travellers aren’t Canada’s only connection to the DEA’s plate-tracking program. A DEA official, who asked to not be named because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter, confirmed that the agency has purchased plate-reading equipment from Genetec, a security technology company headquartered in Montreal, though they said those readers may not, in the end, be used as part of this speed sign rollout.


Genetec spokesperson Kevin Clark said most of Genetec’s clients don’t tell the company how they intend to use any equipment they buy. “It’s none of our business,” he said, adding that legislative bodies are responsible for setting laws that account for privacy and security issues in data collection, such as how information is encrypted and how long it is kept.

“We’re a company that makes software and hardware for customers,” Clark said. “We do create the software so that it can be set to auto-erase, auto-delete data or information from any archiving.”


In this March 14 file photo, an automatic licence plate reader is displayed on top of a police cruiser in Kingston, Ont. Steph Crosier / Postmedia Network

In its annual budget, the DEA says the main reason it tracks licence-plate data is to help federal, state and local law enforcement officials identify and thwart drug traffickers and money launderers. It’s an extension of the logic police forces employ to justify their everyday use of plate readers. The B.C. government, for example, says they can help police nab suspended, uninsured or unlicensed drivers and vehicles wanted in theft or Amber Alert investigations by cross-checking plate data with information from provincial and national databases.

The practice, though, has drawn the ire of people who claim that licence-plate recognition is a form of mass surveillance. To David Fraser, a privacy lawyer in Halifax, the issue with the DEA’s new scheme is that it casts its focus so wide as to target anyone who drives by a hidden plate reader, not just vehicles suspected of funnelling illicit goods.

Citing the sensitivity of any investigation it might undertake, the DEA declined to specify the regions or roads where its reader-equipped speed signs will be positioned, as well as the dates the signs will be installed.

“It may well be that there’s one person who goes by that sign in a day who is a drug dealer, but the reality is there are probably tens of thousands of people who are completely innocent who go past that sign,” Fraser said. “You end up collecting a large amount of information from individuals who have nothing to do with anything.”

Concerns about the retrofitted signs infringing on personal privacy will be especially acute for anyone who drives past one of them on a regular basis, Fraser added. He surmised that some of the drug corridors where the DEA might install signs likely resemble the routes Canadian snowbirds take to and from Florida at the beginning and end of each winter.

“Unless they’re under suspicion for something,” Fraser said, an individual’s travel patterns “should be none of the government’s and the police’s business.”

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Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre

Make no mistake, Canadian provinces engage in similar collection. The classic example is parking an unmarked police operated vehicle at an exit or entrance to a major highway. Local police forces just leave it there for long lengths of time for the capturing of information that is already being used for widespread monitoring.

While we have "Rotten cops" who fabricate evidence against those who they don't like and fail to lay charges against those the favour, this sort of information will be used to terrorize, intimidate and harass those who hold the police accountable for their widespread criminal behavours.

The Ottawa Police is riddled with such lower forms of life. In particular three Ottawa Police Officers fabricate evidence and obstruct justice. Check out these links.

Det. Peter Van Der Zander Badge No. 1639 

Cst. VAN T. NGUYEN Badge No. 952

Cst.  SAMUAL W. SMITH  Badge No. 880