Whitehorse: The Surveillance City

Good news! The totalitarian hellworld is coming to the Yukon!

Will the City of Whitehorse soon be monitoring you with airborne drones?

It’s not as outlandish as it seems. Cities around the world are experimenting with sophisticated technologies to enforce rules, cut costs and generate new revenues. Shenzhen in China already names and shames jaywalkers using widespread digital cameras linked to facial recognition systems, and hopes to soon have robots sending fines by text message to offenders.

The City of Whitehorse has already adopted some high-tech innovations. While still far from flying R2D2 droids dispensing bylaw fines, these new approaches use technology to automate routine tasks more cheaply (and often more effectively) than humans can do them.

City garbage trucks now have those robot arms, eliminating the need for one or two human workers to lift and dump your trash into the truck. And Whitehorse parking wardens have an onboard camera linked to global-positioning-system and license-plate recognition software that keeps track of your vehicle’s whereabouts and whether you’ve violated parking rules.

It’s the same kind of technology that “repo” firms in the United States use to find and repossess cars whose owners are behind on their payments. By equipping tow trucks with cameras as they drive around town, and buying more camera footage from shopping malls and other well-surveilled locales, companies can build up databases of millions of vehicles and where they are usually parked.

It was always possible for a parking warden to note license plates and locations, but the new systems allow it to be done cheaply on a mind-boggling scale. Today’s commercial drones are more like their military cousins than the tiny consumer drones you see in shops, and boast powerful cameras, long flight times and sophisticated analytics software.

This makes me wonder how long the City of Whitehorse keeps my car’s location data, who has access to it, and how securely it is stored. Does some teenage hacker know how often I visit Krusty Burger? Who exactly has the ability to type my license plate into the system and see which parts of town light up?

As for airborne drones, however, so far it seems Whitehorse is only thinking about using them to monitor citizens on city trails.

But the possibilities are endless for a revenue-hungry administration.

There are a vast number of bylaws city-dwellers break routinely.

Drones could send tickets automatically to people who don’t shovel their sidewalks. Or burn garbage without a permit. Or park the boat on the street too long.

You could monitor woodsmoke emissions in the winter or lawn watering during dry periods. Artificial intelligence systems could easily spot the appearance of new sheds, fences and deck extensions and match them with valid building permits.

There are also a wide range of useful things that drones could do that don’t also squeeze more money out of the citizenry. Some cities plan for drones to zip to the locations of 911 calls to quickly assess the situation and give first responders early intelligence. Drones can also scan for new potholes before they get bigger and more expensive to fix, or spot trees dangling over power lines or phone cables. Alaska is experimenting with remote scans of bridges, which would be much cheaper than human visits.

Despite the potential revenue and efficiency benefits, drones could dramatically change the relationship between government and citizens.

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner called this out in a news release last week. “Residents and visitors go about their daily routine in Whitehorse with a reasonable expectation of privacy,” wrote the commissioner, adding that, “This may change, however, if City Council is successful at enlisting drones.”

The commissioner also reminded us that the city is exempt from the territorial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, as well as from the federal Personal Information and Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

It’s not clear to me what independent body is monitoring the city’s use of digital cameras, facial and license-plate recognition software and other new features of 21st century life.

We should probably get that sorted out before the city buys a fleet of Darth Vader 5000s and sets them to buzzing over our heads.

The good news is that the Yukon government plans to update the privacy act this autumn. They should extend the law to cover municipal governments, and beef up our privacy protection on the digital surveillance front.

You might also want to ask the candidates running in the municipal election in October where they stand on the issue.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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