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'Predictive Policing' Is Coming to Canada's Capital, and Privacy Advocates Are Worried

Officers now have access to social media posts and other information directly in patrol car computers. Activists say it could discourage legitimate protests.

Police in Canada's capital city of Ottawa are being supported by a so-called "virtual backup" team that provides front-line officers with unprecedented amounts of information as they race to service calls.

The unit, known as the the Ottawa Police Strategic Operations Centre (OPSOC), has been active since October 2016. But civil liberties advocates are raising concerns about the project, pointing out that it monitors protesters on social media and is developing 'predictive policing' capabilities based on crime data that could contain hidden biases.

Depending on the nature of a call, the OPSOC quickly assembles data from police databases and online sources to provide '"situational awareness" to officers as they arrive on-scene. This includes details about previous calls to an address, suspect photos, floor plans of public buildings and social media chatter—sending the information in near real-time to the computers in police patrol cars.   

Beyond providing support for police operations, the OPSOC also monitors the social media activity of protesters during demonstrations.

"Being involved in political action should not make you the subject of speculative surveillance" 

"In the context of demonstrations, [the OPSOC] puts more focus on social media," explained Ottawa Police Sergeant Paul Andre Tremblay, Coordinator of OPSOC, in a phone call with Motherboard. "We monitor sentiment [about] the Ottawa Police, monitor the conversations that are happening there."

This surveillance of peaceful protesters is concerning to civil liberties advocates like Brenda McPhail, privacy director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

"Being involved in political action should not [automatically make] you the subject of speculative surveillance," said McPhail in a phone call. "We've been talking to activists who've experienced surveillance and [they say] it makes them think twice about protesting."

Tremblay explained that in addition to assisting police during operations, officers and analysts in the centre scour social media to identify people in Ottawa who may be suicidal. If they decide that a person is at risk of harming themselves, at least based on their social media activity, Ottawa police can make an emergency request to a telecom provider to locate the person's phone and find out where the person is.

"[Cell phone] information is used, ninety-nine percent of the time, when we are looking for a missing person," said Tremblay. He declined to give examples of other situations where this type of information might be used by police.

McPhail said the centre's social media monitoring raises questions about the role of police online.

Read More: At Least Nine Ontario Police Agencies Helped Deploy Secret Surveillance Gear

"When people post on social media, they often have an illusion that they are controlling [who sees that post]," said McPhail. "As a society, we need to start thinking about what are appropriate uses of [social media] information, to provide clear rules for police and clear information for the public."

Because Ottawa is both Canada's capital, and a stone's throw across the river from Quebec, multiple police and security agencies share jurisdiction in the city, including the provincial police forces for Ontario and Quebec, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The OPSOC was created to coordinate these agencies under the "fusion center" model used by police in the US and other Canadian cities. As part of this mandate, the OPSOC acts as a "point of contact" for various police agencies, public institutions and private companies during protests, Tremblay confirmed.

"I'm absolutely not concerned with the influence this [information] might have on officers"

Tremblay noted that the OPSOC works with Operation INTERSECT, a program funded in part by the Canadian Security Science Program, to facilitate information-sharing between law enforcement, government and security agencies in Ottawa. A 2015 presentation about the program suggests that the RCMP, CSIS and Public Safety Canada—alongside energy companies, universities and a casino—have participated in INTERSECT.

Currently, the OPSOC is developing the capability to provide front-line officers with crime statistics and predictive analytics for neighborhoods they enter, to identify high-crime areas and trends. I asked Sergeant Tremblay if he's concerned that such information could have an influence on officers' states of mind when responding to calls.

"I'm absolutely not concerned with the influence this [information] might have on officers," said Tremblay.

"[If] we have a rash of bicycle thefts, will [police] be influenced [by this information] if they see someone walking beside a bicycle? They may be more inclined to [stop the person] and do verifications, which is one of the most effective ways to fight crime," Tremblay said.

But McPhail said this data-driven approach to policing can sometimes unintentionally perpetuate discrimination, due to hidden biases in the data set.

"We know that certain populations tend to be over-policed," said McPhail. "If predictive analytics are run on a data set [based on] decades of policing that may include racial discrimination, areas that suffered in the past will continue to suffer in the future."

Sergeant Tremblay was unavailable to answer a follow up question asking if he has concerns that crime data used to inform the OPSOC's predictive modeling could contain hidden biases.

During our interview, Tremblay noted that the OPSOC has only existed for a few months and that it will take time for the centre to reach its full potential.

"We're still in the very early stages of [OPSOC] operations," he said. "We're adding capabilities, slowly but surely."

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