To say that car theft is a pressing issue is something of an understatement. According to a study conducted by the Insurance Information Institute, approximately 707,758 motor vehicles were reported stolen in the United States in 2015 alone — up 3.1 percent from the previous year. All told, one car is stolen somewhere in the U.S. about every 45 seconds. To make matters worse, the average value of each car stolen was about $7,001.
Motor vehicle theft is a problem in Canada, too, but it’s one that our neighbors to the north are NOT taking lightly. In an effort to reduce car theft, police in Victoria have turned to a unique solution — hidden GPS trackers.

Canada and Car Theft: What You Need to Know

In an effort to curb car theft as much as possible, Victoria police officials are conducting a trial of a new GPS vehicle tracking system on 1,000 new cars across the area. If the program is successful, the eventual goal is to make sure that every car in Victoria has one of these GPS transmitters to help catch would-be car thieves in the act.

The GPS devices themselves are barely larger than a standard matchbox. They are hidden in a few different places around a vehicle and can only be activated by police officers with the express written permission of the owner, which is only supposed to occur once the vehicle in question has been stolen. Those who volunteer to participate in the program must fill out incredibly detailed consent forms outlining what the GPS tracker can do, when it can and cannot be activated, where that information is sent, and more.

To put these efforts into perspective, it’s important to understand that auto thefts were the seventh most commonly reported type of crime across all of Victoria in 2016. Almost 24,000 cars were reported stolen during that period of time. In just the first six months of 2017, there were already 16,000 stolen cars. It was clear that something had to be done, and Victoria police believe that technology may hold the answers to all of their problems.

Officials have indicated that they not only hope that the program will reduce car theft, but also the likelihood that stolen vehicles will later be used to commit other crimes. Robert Hill, assistant commissioner of the Victorian Police Department, said that this is a “potential game-changer” in terms of a problem that is currently trending upwards.

Despite the fact that the program itself is clearly launching with the best of intentions, it has still raised concerns about privacy from local advocates. Dr. Jake Goldenfein, privacy and surveillance expert from Swinburne University, has concerns about how the introduction of a mandatory system (which this will go on to be if successful) opens the door for large-scale intrusions on people’s privacy.

Dr. Goldenfein indicated that he was less than impressed with the consent form volunteers are being asked to fill out, as they only say when location-based information SHOULD be used and not when it CAN be used. Under normal circumstances, law enforcement officials would need a warrant for things like a telecommunications interception, but it is not entirely clear whether or not this actually falls into that category in the first place.

Likewise, he has additional questions that he’d like to see answered about when it is possible for police to access GPS data WITHOUT the user’s consent. To their credit, department officials have said that if the recorded data is necessary for an investigation or to be used as evidence, police will still obtain a warrant to access the GPS device’s operating system as they normally would.

If nothing else, situations like this one help to illustrate the necessary compromise that needs to be made between privacy and safety in the digital era. If this program is successful enough to curb the car theft problem in Victoria, is that a large enough “pro” to outweigh the “con” of the police being able to see where you are at all times? For some, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Others may not be sold quite yet.