NZ: Police Use Of Private Sector Vehicle Plate Readers Undermines Accountability


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New Zealand’s police force has received fresh guidance on deploying the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras that are part of Safer Cities and Auror networks, capturing license plate data across supermarkets, service stations, shopping malls, and main streets nationwide.

The backdrop: These ANPR systems are privately-owned and have been garnering increased attention for their usage by the police. The Privacy Impact Assessment recently rolled out by Simply Privacy, headed by ex-police chief privacy officer Mike Flahive, declares that the law enforcement needs “robust governance, policies, processes, and controls,” to ascertain that ANPR usage is “appropriate and lawful and the potential for misuse is limited as much as possible,” The New Zealand Herald reported.

Dig deeper: The New Zealand Herald uncovered incidents where police officers deceitfully logged vehicles as stolen to harness the ANPR system for alternative motives. Notably, the police exploited this “stolen car” loophole to track two women suspected of being COVID-19 positive.

What the assessment says: It is underlined in the assessment that while the ANPR systems can be vital in crime prevention, tracing missing or endangered individuals, and pin-pointing specific number plates, they are also intrusive and can facilitate a thorough record of vehicles or individuals’ movements. The assessment is emphatic on the importance of Safer Cities and Auror querying police on the rationale behind every search, in accordance with the Privacy Act. It also urges police to be more transparent about their utilization of ANPR systems. “In our view, police transparency around its use of ANPR data is likely to enhance public trust in police efforts, ultimately supporting notions of ‘policing by consent’, as well as potentially providing a general deterrence to those who commit crime.”

But, there’s a catch: The data retrieved through ANPR systems might not always be precise, and misuse could spiral into mass surveillance and excessive profiling.

Voices of concern: The NZ Council for Civil Liberties has castigated the assessment. Thomas Beagle, the chairperson of this advocacy group, has questioned the fundamental issue of allowing private companies to amass extensive data that can be utilized to “locate and track people.” Beagle queries the likely scenario if these privately-owned systems did not exist, asking “would we let the police implement a large-scale national vehicle tracking system.” He responded, “I don’t think we would, as we’d see it as implementing mass surveillance and that this sort of invasive tracking of people isn’t compatible with a free and democratic society.” He further stressed, “When we say we’re opposed to mass surveillance, this applies to privately run systems as much as it does to government ones.”

What to watch: With the Privacy Impact Assessment laying out new stipulations, eyes will be on how the New Zealand police adapt to and implement these guidelines. Further scrutiny and public discussion on the balance between privacy and security, especially with privately-owned ANPR systems, are anticipated.

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