Swiping away privacy?

This post is the first in a series of essays from students in Political Science 370, The Politics of Surveillance, a University of Victoria course taught by Dr. Colin Bennett.  By sharing these posts on its blog, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner hopes to facilitate discussions about privacy and access issues. The views expressed, of course, are those of the authors.

In an age where surveillance is omnipresent, a simple ID swipe and captured image does not elicit a response from most young people entering a bar or a club. In recent years, the intensified surveillance of patrons in liquor establishments has become increasingly prevalent. In many cities, this surveillance has materialized into Bar Watch programs that aim to reduce and prevent violent and gang related crime in and around bars and nightclubs. The unseen aspect of these programs is the infringement upon the privacy rights of individual citizens. Often people turn a blind eye to privacy with respect to increasing public surveillance. It should be of interest to all people who frequent bars to know how Bar Watch works, what information the program collects, and who can access the stored information.

What is Bar Watch?

The Victoria Bar Watch Program has been used widely in many bars, nightclubs, and restaurants for years. An offshoot of Vancouver’s model, Distrikt owner Grant Olson explains that Victoria bars have employed Bar Watch for about ten years after being encouraged by the Vancouver police “gang squad” of the Victoria Bar and Cabaret Society to reinforce the message that gang activity was not welcome in downtown Victoria. The immediate appeal was that the program was expected to reduce criminal activity and make the downtown core “safer and more appealing.” It was established as a partnership between the Victoria police department and bars, including Earls, Cactus Club, Smith’s, Distrikt, Sugar, Upstairs Cabaret, and the Sticky Wicket.

What Information does Bar Watch Collect?

The Bar Watch program consists of a security system that gathers and stores patron information by swiping ID, usually drivers’ licenses. Initially, the TreoScope ID scanning program was used to gather patron data and store it in its database for an unspecified period of time. Shortly after implementation, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, David Loukidelis, issued a report in 2009 stating that a Vancouver bar using TreoScope was collecting and retaining too much private patron information. The Commissioner engaged in a series of discussions with TreoScope before deciding that it could only collect “name, photograph, date of birth, and gender of customers who enter a bar, but that information can be retained for no more than a transitory 24-hour working period.” Following this decision, Victoria bars switched to the Servall PatronScan ID scanning software.

PatronScan is a powerful tool used to identify fake IDs and underage patrons as well as compile a list of banned patrons that can be shared between all venues using PatronScan in the area. Individuals can be placed on a banned patrons list by the security staff if they are judged to be acting in an unacceptable manner. When this occurs, they are barred from returning for a specified date. For example, Olson says that a patron who starts a fight may be banned for three months, though these periods of banishment vary based on the discretion of the security staff. Having a list of these individuals theoretically allows bars to deny access to possible security threats and to deter criminal or gang-related behavior from occurring within the bar or club

Who Can Access My Information?

PatronScan has a comprehensive privacy policy that states that data gathered is deleted every 24 hours, though the information is only permanently deleted from the server after ninety days in most jurisdictions. The police are the only authority that can retain information past these deadlines. The information gleaned is uploaded into the central PatronScan database and only shared with bars or nightclubs when a patron is involved in an incident. While it is reassuring that patron information is stored in a central location and not at each separate location, Olson notes that the user of the PatronScan application has access to an individual’s information for a short time so they can log an incident. Thus, the staff at each bar swiping the IDs may have visual access to patron information on multiple possible occasions.

The Bar Watch program is also supported by the Victoria Police Department. While the police are not officially affiliated with the program, VicPD Constable Dan O’Connor states that the Late Night Task Force officers assist bars with the enforcement of “House Rules” under the Liquor Control Licensing Act and the Criminal Code of Canada. Bar Watch House Rules are the guidelines patrons, often unwittingly, agree to by entering an establishment that subscribes to the program in Victoria. The rules are supposed to be posted in a visible place at the bar entrance, though most patrons hardly notice. Constable O’Connor says that the Task Force may ask a bar patron for ID to identify persons of interest, though patrons are not legally required to give up this information in a private establishment. If the officers identify a gang member they can remove this person in accordance with the House Rules and can additionally recommend to the establishment that the person be placed on the Bar Watch list. As the police do not have access to the program directly, the final decision for barring patrons is up to the bar staff on duty. Constable O’Connor notes that the Victoria police can only legally access the information about a specific individual stored in the Servall database by obtaining a production order or warrant.

Even with these measures in place, there have been privacy concerns expressed about the use of Bar Watch data by police. Lawyer Michael Mulligan reveals in a Times Colonist article that the Victoria Police have used the Bar Watch program to retroactively track persons of interest. A Freedom of Information Request disclosed that Victoria Police were encouraged to use the Bar Watch database to track a person’s movements over an evening if they believed the person to be suspicious. This is concerning because the data is not necessarily used for a specific investigation, but instead as a convenient tool for the police to track citizens.

Additionally, police use of Bar Watch as a guise to conduct ID checks for other purposes within bars could be an indication of ‘function creep.’ Micheal Vonn says that it has come to the BCCLA’s attention that some bars and nightclubs in Vancouver have been signing over authority to the Vancouver police to act on behalf of the bar under the Bar Watch program. With this authority, police are allowed to ask for patron ID and can remove individuals from the bar at their discretion without corroboration from the bar staff. Recently, a lawyer came forward after having his personal information mistakenly taken by a Vancouver police officer within a bar in order to help place him on the Bar Watch list but, during the process, noted that his information was entered into the Vancouver police department’s database. Vonn noted that the Vancouver police were circumventing the law by entering the personal data gleaned from ID checks as “surmise,” instead of fact. This is particularly problematic, as this suggests that the police are using data gathered from bar patrons for reasons other than banning them from the bar, as is the stated purpose of the program.

Should I Be Worried?

The Bar Watch program has many controls in place to protect patron privacy, however areas of concern remain. The program is indicative of the much larger phenomenon of increasing surveillance in all aspects of modern society. As with Bar Watch, much of this surveillance goes unnoticed by society and is ignored in public discourse. Unfortunately, citizens are faced with the ever-present choice of either consenting to security measures and their implications or not using the service at all. Living in a world gradually shaped by the need for security, individuals are increasingly left with the sense that they must give up their privacy rights in favor of public safety.

About the author:

Jocelyn Rempel is currently finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria with a focus on history and political science. Most recently, she has been involved in creating the current edition of the UVic History Undergraduate Journal, the Corvette, in her capacity as Editor-in-Chief. She has also been published in the UVic Undergraduate Political Science Journal, On Politics. Her interest in this particular topic was sparked by a class taught by Dr. Colin Bennett and her work at Mulligan Tam Pearson, a criminal defence firm in Victoria.


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