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Update on NZ Police use of aerial surveillance drones

Posted on April 2, 2013

We've been keeping track of the Police use of new surveillance and tracking technology. We asked them what they've been doing with drones and here are the more interesting/informative answers (Police letter, 19th February 2013):

  • The Police currently have one aerial drone.
  • They don't have a specific budget for it and claim not to know how much they've spent on it so far.
  • They say that they can use it for tracking people and cars but promise to do it in accordance with the Search & Surveillance Act. We note that our interpretation of this says that they need a tracking warrant to use an electronic tracking system but we don't know if the Police agree with this.
  • The Police believe that their current policy concerning video recording operations and events also covers their use of drones.
  • The Police have been contacted by the Privacy Commissioner re their use of drones and will be meeting with them soon.
  • The Police expect their drone trials to finish by the end of 2013.

You may also wish to read this article about drones by David Beatson at NZ Pundit.

We're going to be following up to get more information. If there's any questions you want asked, please leave them in the comments.

Police use of new surveillance technology

Posted on January 9, 2013

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.

General Principles

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.