News

1. Biometrics at the jail

Yesterday morning, the provincial Corrections department opened up part of the Burnside jail for a media tour. El Jones and I jumped at the opportunity.

This was a PR exercise on the part of Corrections, and as such things go, was well-run. Corrections staff were informative and answered even the most pointed questions. Reporters did not, however, get the chance to interact or talk with inmates; I would’ve liked to have had that chance to hear what they thought. Still, I got a real sense of jail operations, and I’m glad I went.

The primary aim of the tour was to show off the newly renovated north wing of the jail. At a cost of $6.8 million, the wall between two former “day rooms” was removed and the wing was rebuilt as one direct supervision room, with a capacity of 62 inmates.

“Direct supervision” is a change from the old “intermittent supervision,” where guards would drop by every 15 minutes to see how things are going; now, the guards will be continually in the day room, constantly interacting with the prisoners. (Corrections is still negotiating with the guards’ union to determine whether one or two guards will be in the room.) In theory — and in practice at the new Northeast Correctional Facility in New Glasgow, say Corrections officials — the constant interaction between inmates and guards “builds rapport” and allows guards to head off problems before they escalate. Use of violence against inmates is down in such facilities.

Besides showing off the north wing, the tour included a look at a “community fair” that would be open to prisoners later in the day, in which community groups that help to reintegrate prisoners into society post-release are able to explain their services.

I may at some later time write more about direct supervision and/or the community organizations, but today I want to write about the third component of the tour, which involved a discussion of two new body scanners that will soon be in operation, one on the male side of the prison, the other on the female side. The scanners are to take the place of more intrusive physical searches of inmates for contraband.

I was envisioning — and to be honest, kind of hoping — that they were old Unique Solutions body scanners purchased at a bankruptcy sale, but no, these are much more advanced machines called Soter RS body scanners built by a Dutch company called OD Security, which were sold to Corrections at a cost of $190,000 per, all in, including training. We weren’t allowed to actually see the scanners as they were in areas of the jail that were still under construction, so instead we were shown this promotional video from the company:

I have all sorts of questions about this.

First, there are safety issues. In response to my question, a Corrections official told me that no one would be allowed to go through the scan more than 250 times a year. I understand that as designed, the level of radiation is extremely low, less than, say, the increased radiation received on a flight from Halifax to Toronto. But who calibrates the machines, and how often will they be checked? Jones asked about pregnant women, and was told that there is no increased health risk to the fetus. Maybe, but with no disrespect for the Corrections people, I’d like to hear an outside opinion on the matter.

The second level of concern is around procedures. Jones knows more about this than do I, but from what I understand, at issue is consent and privacy. What happens if it appears that someone has a cell phone shoved up a body cavity? Is there then a more aggressive physical search? Corrections officials said that in the case of suspected swallowed drugs, as is now the practice, inmates will be placed in a “dry cell” — basically to wait until they shit, and then their shit will be searched. There are legal issues around searches and consent that should be further explained, I think. And what about false positives?

But for me, the biggest area of concern is around data collection and privacy. The machines hold and store the biometric information of each inmate. I asked how long the information was stored, what policies were in place for safe-guarding it, and when and how it was disposed of, and got no satisfactory answer.

When new technologies are adopted by provincial agencies, there is a required “Privacy Impact Assessment” (PIA) to determine how data will be controlled. The policy on the assessments is found here, and an “assessment template” that agencies are to use is found here.

After the tour, I asked spokesperson Sarah Gillis about the PIA for the body scanners. (Incidentally, Gillis has been quite helpful throughout this.) She responded:

Correctional Services conducted a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on the body scanners and it is currently with the FOIPOP office for final review. The PIA will be approved and in place prior to the launch of the body scanners.

That seems backwards to me. Shouldn’t the PIA had been conducted and approved before the machines were purchased?

In any event, remember first of all that many of the inmates have not been convicted of anything. But even convicted prisoners have basic rights to privacy and protection of their own bodies and data related to it. I can envision all sorts of horrible things that could be done with this data, but the most obviously pressing concern is that it will be used for commercial or research purposes — a giant data set is about to be created, and people are going to want at it. We need policies and regulations in place as to who has access to the data and who can use it and for what purposes.

Ultimately, of course, the inmates should have control over their data, and any use of it must be granted through informed consent. The problem is, how do you give informed consent while in jail?

2. Energy efficiency

“New analysis shows that Nova Scotia can save $700 million and avoid building a new natural gas power plant by increasing its level of electricity savings,” writes Brendan Haley in an op-ed for the Chronicle Herald:

A business-as-usual level consistent with the province’s efficiency utility (Efficiency Nova Scotia) savings of about 1.3 per cent of annual electricity sales, or a higher-efficiency level ramping up to two per cent annual savings. To be conservative, the modellers assumed that programs would cost almost twice as much to save more energy.

The business-as-usual “reference” scenario indicated the need to construct a new 250-megawatt combined cycle natural gas plant in 2023. Building this plant would scuttle the power utility’s plan to transition from coal to renewables without becoming locked into natural gas infrastructure (labelled “coal to clean”).

Increasing energy efficiency prevents the need to build the gas plant and incur other costs, leading to a net present value saving of almost $700 million. If energy efficiency was coupled with more wind power and transmission upgrades, the monetary saving would be $800 million. This combination of efficiency and renewables provided the lowest-cost resource mix.

3. Someone(s) stole Sandeson’s shoes, wine, and booze

Everyone knows that William Sandeson was convicted for first degree-murder in the August 2015 death of Taylor Samson but, writes Small Claims Court adjudicator Eric Slone in a decision released yesterday:

Less well known is the fact that the Claimant was an avid collector of shoes, specifically of sneakers, and that he made his own wine in his spare time.

At the time of the incidents that led to his arrest and incarceration, he was living in an apartment on Henry Street in Halifax, with his roommate Dylan Zinck-Selig. The apartment contained approximately twenty-eight pairs of sneakers made by most of the better-known brands, many of them new and most of them stored in shoeboxes in his closet. These shoeboxes can be seen on the short video made by the police forensic unit when they first entered the apartment with a search warrant, looking for evidence in connection with the alleged murder.

Sometime during or after the police investigation of the murder, 18 pairs of shoes, 40 bottles of homemade wine, and “between 5 and 10 bottles of hard liquor” disappeared.

Sandeson sued Zinck-Selig for $2,500, saying his roommate must have taken them. Zinck-Selig admitted to taking two pairs of sneakers and four bottles of wine, writes Slone:

He says that he felt entitled to take these things as partial compensation for the fact that some of his stuff had been destroyed by the police or forensic personnel in their search of the premises. The main item that he referred to was a beanbag chair that had been split open with the result that the beans were piled all over the floor, to the extent that many small items were literally buried in beans. He testified that most of the Claimant’s shoes would not have fit him, as they do not wear the same size, but the two pairs he took were the right size.

And anyway, there were all sorts of people traipsing all over the place, including cops and investigators and the landlord. Anyone could had lifted the stuff.

So, Slone found for Sandeson, but only for the stuff Zinck-Selig admitted to taking:

I do not believe that the Defendant had a right to take anything that was not his. Legally speaking, he did not have a claim against the Claimant that entitled him to help himself to compensation. The Defendant was a victim of systems beyond anyone’s control. And of all the victims in the larger scenario, he was one of the least impacted.

Slone found for Sandeson in the amount of $500, plus about $200 in costs.

4. Sensitivity training

“More than six months after they voted in favour of group cultural sensitivity training as a response to complaints against them, Halifax regional councillors had their first of two sessions of the training on Tuesday,” reports Zane Woodford for StarMetro Halifax.


Government

City

Wednesday

Audit and Finance Standing Committee (Wednesday, 10am, City Hall) — minor tweaks to the Marketing Levy Special Event Reserve Grants program.

FCM 2018 Conference Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 1pm, City Hall) — updates and more updates.

Public Information Meeting – Case 21406 (Wednesday, 7pm, Knights of Columbus, 252 Cobequid Rd, Lower Sackville) — Teal Architects & Planners wants to build a four-storey, 36-unit apartment building at 216 Cobequid Road in Lower Sackville.

Thursday

Until Gdynia, Poland ruins its waterfront with a cheap knockoff of the Oslo Opera House, we don’t want anything to do with the place.

Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee (Thursday, 10am, City Hall) — Gdynia, Poland has come a-calling!

Gdynia is a city on the Baltic coast of Poland, part of the “tri-cities area” that includes Gdańsk and Sopot. You may remember that the Gdańsk shipyard was the birthplace of Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity union, or you may be younger than 40 and have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyway, bouquet and chocolates in hand, Gdynia showed up unannounced on Halifax’s doorstep in 2016 and asked to establish a “sister city relationship,” know what I mean? Nudge nudge. Nudge nudge.

But gentlemen city callers cannot just show up on Halifax’s doorstep and expect to have their way with her. There are protocols. Procedures, even. We have our reputation to maintain, you know. And after our fair city had liaised with Hakodate, Japan and Campeche, Mexico with frankly mixed results, it was decided that future callers should be vetted by something called the International Partnership Committee.

That committee considered the new caller and thought that the proposed match was, well, not ideal:

[T]he Gdynia proposal was assessed at a meeting of the International Partnership Committee. As noted above, the cultural aspects of the Gdynia proposal lie primarily in areas outside the municipality’s jurisdiction. This, together with the lack of an organized community group to support a partnership, led the Committee to suggest continuing the bilateral activities that had been initiated and beginning a process to explore development of a partnership. In follow-up to the screening of the Gdynia proposal, the Halifax Partnership conducted a formal assessment of the Gdynia request and determined that full Economic Partnership was not feasible at that time, but that the city could be presented first as a proposed friendship partner. Subsequently, a recommendation to pursue a Friendship Agreement with Gdynia was made by the International Partnership Committee.

In short, Gdynia asked for a full-blown romance, and Halifax responded by saying, “Let’s just be friends.”

Active Transportation Advisory Committee (Thursday, 4pm, City Hall) — don’t ask me what this means (because I don’t know), but the committee will have a “discussion on existing policy for sacred land, such as ghost bikes.”

Port Wallace PPC Meeting (Thursday, 6:30pm, HEMDCC Large Meeting Room 1, Alderney Gate) — I ran out of time and couldn’t review the agenda.

Province

Wednesday

Public Accounts (Wednesday, 9am, Province House) — Simon d’Entremont, the deputy minister at the Department of Seniors, will be asked about “Nova Scotia’s Action Plan for an Aging Population and Age-friendly Communities Grant” and not about that FOIPOP security failure.

Thursday

No public meetings for the rest of the week.


On campus

Dalhousie

Wednesday

The Utility-based Regression Problem (Wednesday, 12:30pm, Room 430, Goldberg Computer Science Building) — Paula Branco from the University of Porto, Portugal, will speak. Her abstract:

In this talk we will discuss the Utility-based Regression problem. Utility-based learning problems involve the use of non-uniform preferences when assessing the predictive performance of the models. We describe some important relationships between utility-based learning and other predictive tasks such as standard predictive tasks and the problem of learning from imbalanced domains. We present the challenges raised by utility-based regression tasks, and discuss some possible solutions. In particular, we provide examples of both modeling and pre-processing solutions for these tasks.

Thursday

Mark Tewksbury (Thursday, 1pm, Spatz Theatre, Citadel High School) — Mark Tewksbury, “one of the first openly gay Olympic champions” — he won the gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Summer Olympics — is taking part in the “Belong Forums” this year. The Belong Forums are “a public lecture series in honour of Dalhousie’s 200th anniversary, featuring internationally respected thinkers, trailblazers and change-makers.” Free admission, but limited seating, so you have to register here.


In the harbour

1:30am: AS Felicia, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for Kingston, Jamaica
6am: ZIM Texas, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Algeciras, Spain
7am: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, moves from Pier 36 to Pier 41
8am: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England
9:15am: Grandeur of the Seas, cruise ship with up to 2,446 passengers, arrives at Pier 22 from Saint John
11am: Grande Halifax, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Gioli Tauro, Italy
11:30am: Delhi Highway, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
3:30pm: Atlantic Sky, ro-ro container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Norfolk
4pm: Tugela, car carrier, arrives at Pier 31 from Southampton, England
4:30pm: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, sails from Fairview Cove for New York
4:30pm: ZIM Texas, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for New York
6:30pm: Grandeur of the Seas, cruise ship, sails from Pier 22 for Baltimore
8pm: CSL Tacoma, bulker, sails from National Gypsum for sea


Footnotes

I’ll be on The Sheldon MacLeod Show, News 95.7, at 2pm.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. There are concerns about the condition of the three ghost bikes in HRM, especially the one on the approach to the Macdonald Bridge. Since these are haphazard memorials put up by community members who are grieving, similar to roadside crosses, the city is trying to figure out what to do with them and who will pay for upkeep. Every time a new one goes in the city receives a few complaints from people who find them triggering (which, arguably, is the purpose of a memorial) so there is a desire to have a specific policy for staff to fall back on.

  2. Gdansk, the place where in January 1963 I bought my first transistor radio (Japanese). And famously the place where 10,000 shipyard workers chanted ‘Thatcher,Thatcher’ when she toured the yard with Lech Walesa. My main memory of Gdansk was seeing many stone buildings with gunfire damage from WW2. At that time the Baltic remained partially mined.

  3. Your account of the prison visit shows the benefit of a candid, forthright communications program to an organization like Correctional Services. Spokesperson Sarah Gillis responded to your pointed questions helpfully. and this seems to have tempered your impression of what could be a controversial new technology. I can just imagine your response had a tight-assed, unhelpful flak been charge of communications. We’ve all dealt with spokespeople like that.

    In your concerns about privacy, it seemed as though you were searching for something to be concerned about. To judge from the video, it looks as though the “biometric data” collected during the scanning process consists of a couple of fingerprint scans. (Maybe there’s more to it than this.) I’d be more worried about the concerns you raised if they included blood and saliva samples, or DNA analysis.

    In general, I think journalists should be cautious about jumping on the privacy protection bandwagon. In terms of privacy, the default is that government already has all kinds of sensitive information about its citizens. To that degree, privacy is a horse that has left the stable. Nevertheless, bureaucrats and politicians constantly invoke privacy concerns to cover up (or refuse even to discuss) all manner of controversial official behaviour and downright malfeasance. To me that’s a much bigger concern than whether the public knows my name, address, and telephone number, data that was once published annually in massive public telephone directories, but is now treated as a state secret.

  4. Tim,

    as a physicist who works in the field of radiation, i think you should hunt down more on these x-ray scanners at use in the jail.
    – what happens if a prisoner refuses to be scanned? they should have that right. they should not be forced to be x-rayed fro any reason, unless it’s a medical one.
    – how much radiation per scan? saying they won’t have more than 250/year is not enough. especially since those settings can be changed as shown in the video. the CNSC determines how much an employee who works with radiation is allowed to have.
    – who does calibrate these machines and how often?
    i think this could be a blatant violation of rights.

    C

  5. Most people who collect high-end sneakers aren’t doing it to wear them. Shoe size is irrelevant.