The NZ Police are continuing to expand their use of technology to watch and track people in New Zealand. We've already discussed automated number plate recognition, but information has emerged about two new initiatives:
The first is Signal - a tool used to scan and collate publicly availably data from multiple social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. This data can then be analysed to establish connections between people and events, and was used during the Rugby World Cup to monitor both boy racers and political protesters.
The second is the trialling of aerial surveillance drones. As part of the trials they have already been used in some Police investigations.
We're not reflexively opposed to the NZ Police using tools to do their job better, but we do have some concerns about how they can be used to infringe our rights to go about our lawful business without unwarranted surveillance and tracking. We believe that it is not healthy in a democratic society for our every movement and action to be monitored, stored and analysed by the government.
We've made requests to the Police for more information about both of these initiatives and will report more once we receive it.
One thing that is of concern is that the Police seem to be being quite secretive about their use of technology. It seems that they wait for someone to find out about it before releasing information in dribs and drabs, sometimes after prompting from the Ombudsman. If the Police aren't proud of what they're doing to more efficiently fight crime, perhaps they shouldn't be doing it at all.
A second concern is that our laws, even including the new Search & Surveillance Act, might already be out of date when it comes to the Police use of such technology. For example, are there any controls on amassing publicly available data to such an extent that modern data analysis software can make some assumptions about very private behaviour?
We'd like to see two things:
- The NZ Police taking a more proactive role in disclosing what they are doing and how they are doing it. They may even wish to do more consulting with community groups and watchdogs such as Tech Liberty and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties.
- Work on a new set of standards and principles to inform the Police's (and other agencies) use of new technology and "big data" systems. These should cover data integrity, retention, security, auditing and notification. This is something that Tech Liberty is currently working on.
We've been keeping an eye on the NZ Police trials of ANPR (automated number plate recognition - read our explanation).
The main civil liberties issue with this technology is that the system stores the time and location of the license plate check. Once enough of these systems are deployed they can be used to track people by following vehicle movements, as is being done by a number of other countries. We believe that, at a minimum, there should be some controls on how this data is stored and used, for example by having to apply for a tracking warrant.
The Police themselves have been sending out mixed messages about whether they're keeping the information and whether they'll be using it for tracking, as documented by our article. At the end of that article we said we were seeking further clarification from the Police.
Police confirm they're not keeping ANPR data for tracking
We have now received a letter (PDF) from Superintendent Carey Griffiths in which he explains:
All three patrol cars and one of the vans have the capacity to store information for up to a two or three day period depending upon operational use. In general the information is not stored for any longer than a shift period which can vary from an eight hour to a ten hour shift.
One of the [two] vans has a system known as BOSS ( Back Office System Software) and this system has the capability to store information for a longer period ... The BOSS system settings have recently been amended, and the information is now only stored for a maximum of 48 hours.
It seems clear from this that the Police will not be keeping the ANPR data.
Police believe they can't track without a warrant
Furthermore, Superintendent Griffiths goes on to say that:
Police considers that with so few cameras, the technology cannot be used to "track" vehicles. In any event, Police cannot track vehicles other than in accordance with the Search & Surveillance Act 2012.
This contrasts strongly with what the Police said in a letter from December 2011:
There is no requirement for police to apply for a warrant for any ANPR information as it is gathered in a public place.
This change in attitude is quite interesting. The Search & Surveillance Act only refers to getting a warrant for tracking when it involves the use of a tracking device (s46). We initially took this to refer to getting a warrant to allow the installation of a "bug" on the car or person to be tracked.
However, tracking device is defined as "a device that may be used to help ascertain, by electronic or other means ... the location of a thing or a person".
Could one define an ANPR system as a tracking device and would the Police then have to get a warrant to use it to track people? It seems that the Police now think it would. The same argument would also seem to apply to using mobile phones to track people.
In our opinion this interpretation would fit in both with the purpose of the Act and the requirements in a civil society for oversight of the use of this type of mass surveillance.
We're pleased that the Police are not attempting to implement the sort of pervasive people/vehicle tracking systems that are becoming popular in some overseas jurisdictions. We do not think that this sort of police state behaviour has any place in a free and democratic New Zealand.
Furthermore, after some problems with illegal surveillance in recent years, it's good to see that the Police are taking their responsibilities under the Search & Surveillance Act seriously.
We will continue to monitor the Police use of ANPR technology and look forward to receiving copies of the assessment from the Privacy Commissioner and the final Police report into their test ANPR deployment.
The main civil liberties issue is that the system stores the time and location of the license plate check. Once enough of these systems are deployed they can be used to track people by following vehicle movements. We believe that, at a minimum, there should be some controls on how this data is stored and used, for example by having to apply for a tracking warrant.
Nothing to fear?
The Police were represented on Close Up by Superintendent Carey Griffiths who said that these fears were incorrect: "The system we are using here, we don't retain the data."
He went on to say: "Most of the cameras and systems we use drop it off at the end of the shift. We're certainly not using it for data mining."
"Details of vehicle movements captured during ANPR deployments will be retained on a secure Police database."
What sort of data is stored?
"The time, data and a photograph of all vehicles passing the ANPR camera is stored." and "Yes it will include the location or where the device was deployed."
And will they be used for tracking?
"Police may search the stored data if there is a belief that there may be information relation to a crime; e.g. where a serious crime has taken place and Police are looking for an offender's vehicle."
And do the Police think they need a warrant to track people in this way?
"There is no requirements for police to apply for a warrant for any ANPR information as it is gathered in a public place."
The big question
Who is correct - Superintendent Carey Griffiths, Road Policing Manager, who just appeared on Close Up or Superintendent Paula Rose, National Manager Road Policing, who wrote to us in March and December 2011?
Has the policy changed in the meantime? Was Superintendent Paula Rose incorrect? Or has Superintendent Carey Griffiths been misleading us all on national TV?
Edit (19/8/2012): We have written to the Commissioner of Police to ask for an explanation and will report back with any answer we get.
ANPR stands for automated number plate recognition.
It’s a camera that can automatically recognise and read license plates on cars and then checks them against a central database. If the plate matches a “vehicle of interest”, the police can then decide to pull over the car and talk to the driver. ANPR cameras are typically deployed in police cars and in fixed installations by the side of the road.
The current state of ANPR in New Zealand
[Edit: there is some inconsistency between the information available over multiple letters from the Police and that reported in Police News.]
[Edit 2: Superintendent Carey Griffiths has denied that the Police will be storing the ANPR data and using it for tracking. We have asked the Police Commissioner for clarification.]
According to the June 2012 edition of Police News, the NZ Police have been trialling ANPR since 2009. This has involved four mobile ANPR units which are not that sophisticated in that they need two people to operate them (one to drive, one to watch the screen).
In theory the trial ended in January 2012 but it is our understanding from Police News that they are still using the current four ANPR vehicles (2 in Auckland, 1 in Waikato/Eastern and 1 in Christchurch/Southland) and are looking at deploying another couple.
We have requested copies of reports about the trial and any recommendations about further deployment of ANPR systems.
Thanks an OIA request by Alex Harris we also have a draft copy of the ANPR manual. There is also an associated letter where the Police report that the trial began in 2010 and has consisted of only two units for a limited time in Counties Manukau and Wellington, with them currently deployed in Counties Manukau and Waitemata.
The Police answer questions about ANPR
Some questions and answers from letters to the police about ANPR (questions are ours, answers are from the Police):
Q. What data is stored with each record (e.g. location, time of day, etc)?
A. The time date and a photograph of all vehicles passing the ANPR camera is stored.
Q. Will this information include the location of the ANPR device at the time of the lookup?
A. Yes it will include the location of where the device was deployed.
Q. How long will the data for each captured license plate be kept for?
A. Data of vehicle movements captured during ANPR deployments will be retained on a secure Police database. In time this information may be deleted with it is no longer required for the purpose it was obtained. Police may search the stored data if there is a belief that there may be information relating to a crime.
Q. Are the police considering using the information stored in the ANPR database to track vehicles?
A. The ANPR system alerts police to vehicles that are a vehicle of interest to police recorded in the vehicles of interest database.
Q. If so, do the police believe they would need to apply for a warrant to use the information in this way?
A. There is no requirement for police to apply for a warrant for any ANPR information as it is gathered in a public place.
Why does ANPR make us worried?
If ANPR was simply used by the police to help find people they are actively looking for, we’d probably have no argument against it.
The problem is that it’s more than just a simple database lookup. That central database isn’t just responding to queries, it’s also storing the date, the time and the place for every car that passes the ANPR camera.
So the police end up with a very big database of car sightings – which gives them the ability to track the movements of any car they wish. Even more worrying is that they can keep this data for as long as they like and therefore “go back in time” by entering queries for any day since the database was started.
The technology is rapidly getting cheaper and could easily end up deployed in every police car and in fixed places around major cities and roads, allowing for near total coverage.
There are three types of harm that can come from creating a new database like this:
- An inappropriate extension of police power that might be used badly. e.g. the Police use it to spy on political activists who are engaged in peaceful protest, breaching their rights to privacy and freedom from Police surveillance.
- Extension to other government departments. e.g. could CYFS access the database to determine that you are feeding your children badly because you park near the local McDonalds each day?
- Improper use. A police officer using it to stalk someone for their own reasons.
Tracking used to be hard
Tracking someone used to be hard and expensive but ANPR is going to make it easy and cheap. With ANPR you don't need a whole team of people, you don't need to install a GPS tracking device, you don't need to get a court order to access mobile phone data - you just install ANPR devices everywhere and then ask the database about whoever you like.
More to the point, you also don’t need to change any laws or apply for a surveillance warrant to install a tracking device – you can just start doing it.
It’s the sort of information that a totalitarian regime would love to have. But is it the sort of information that we want our government to have about everyone?
Shouldn't we talk about what sort of controls we might want to impose if such a system is implemented?
Are we going to end up with this system watching our every move without even any public debate about it?