Police made false report to use ANPR cameras to track women who triggered Northland lockdown

Triggered by the stolen vehicle alert that police transmitted to two private camera networks, automatic license plate recognition cameras rang the women’s cars at least 10 times. (file image)
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Just a month after the privacy commissioner warned police to do better on license plate and privacy cameras, a detective claims a car was stolen so he could track it .

OIA documents show police made the false report while chasing three women who traveled to Northland last October, triggering a Covid-19 lockdown.

Triggered by the stolen vehicle alert that police transmitted to two private camera networks, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras rang the women’s cars at least 10 times.

The detective later “deleted” the alert, he told a Detective Inspector.

A month earlier, in September 2021, the privacy commissioner had sent a letter to deputy chief executive of police tech boss Mark Evans outlining a plan to expand ANPR.

“It is essential that ANPR’s proposal is not developed in isolation from the environment in which it will be used. Recent interactions between our organizations suggest that considerable work is required to strengthen the culture, practice and systems of management of police confidentiality,” the privacy commissioner wrote. .

“I am particularly concerned about the apparent low level of awareness and understanding of frontline privacy.”

The use of tracking was a “very privacy-invasive feature”, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner told police in July this year, regardless of the Northland case.

“The use of this ability must be proportionate to the purpose of its use.”

Police eventually caught up with the three women in Auckland later. The women’s request to go to Northland had been approved by a government agency.

The case came to light at the same time as RNZ reported on the spread of a private network of surveillance cameras which the police regularly tapped into.

Their main source of license plate images is the Auror Company, which said on its website that police are making so many requests that they have introduced a push-button way for retailers to give police their ANPR images.

The second company they use, SaferCities, told RNZ it has 217 ANPR cameras in a network of almost 5,000 CCTV cameras.

A 2017 police report on setting up an ANPR SaferCities platform, said three Northland towns, with 700 cameras between them, were “eager to provide” their license plate information.

“It is a safe assumption that nationally potential ANPR platforms number in the thousands,” he said.

The OIA on the Northland hunt shows that the police used the networks of both companies.

“Ask Intel to do an Auror check for these as well,” an officer said Oct. 10, adding, “These results are all ANPR cameras connected to VGRID.”

VGRID is the SaferCities Network.

An hour later, another officer replied via email, “Please see Auror transactions below for both vehicles. I would suggest CCTV be lifted from the various locations.”

In a statement, police said: “A vehicle should not be recorded in a police database as stolen unless the circumstances indicate that it has been stolen.”

“Although well-intentioned, this was the wrong way to generate an automatic alert, which ultimately had the same result [lawfully locating the car].”

The spokesperson said staff were being reminded of their “clear” policy on ANPR, that their training was being reviewed and that they could carry out an audit “to confirm that the platform – a tool for ‘valuable survey – is used appropriately’.

They revealed that the police carried out almost a third of a million – 327,000 – checks on the ANPR network last year, and that more than 6,000 employees could access it.

In the Northland case, they could have triggered a health alert, since they had a Covid-19 prescription from the medical officer of health, or by labeling the car as “wanted” rather than “stolen”.

However, police said earlier that a list of stolen vehicles, which was updated several times a day, was the only data police fed automatically into the two private networks.

Expectations of the Privacy Commissioner regarding the use of ANPR by the police

In September last year the Privacy Commissioner, having been told that the police wanted to install more ANPR in patrol cars (they only have 28 cameras at present), said told Mark Evans that they had to do better.

“I expect the police to work to strengthen their privacy culture and privacy management systems alongside the development of this proposal and I would certainly expect to see progress in these areas before that the ANPR initiative is extended beyond the proposed pilot,” then commissioner John Edwards wrote.

In July this year, an email shows the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) was happier – but also issues other warnings.

“It’s great to see the police developing comprehensive guidelines for this technology,” the email read.

“Although license plate information (NPI) is not itself very sensitive, the ANPR system is a powerful intelligence and surveillance tool providing police with real-time information about vehicles and their drivers. , as well as the ability to review vehicle locations and track vehicles.”

In addition to needing strong confidentiality mitigations, accountability and transparency, the “police should develop more explicit operational guidelines for personnel who apply this test on a daily basis.”

But the email also reveals a blind spot that existed just two months ago: Information about police use of ANPR of SaferCities was “somewhat limited and it is unclear how and to what extent. measure the police use technology provided by SaferCities”.

It was unclear whether they had audited that use, the privacy commissioner’s office said.

Asked about this, the police referred RNZ to its new policy and new ANPR rules of use which it published last week.

These rules state that they can only follow a vehicle if there is a risk to someone’s life or a serious threat to security; if they obtain a warrant under the Search and Surveillance Act; or operate under the emergency provisions of this Act.

The rules require police to verify their use of ANPR and report publicly – however, the two private camera networks will not be as visible.

Responsibility for privacy breaches rests with camera owners – mostly shops, car park owners or councils – and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has asked the police to help them with legal advice on their obligations.

Police told RNZ that the best source of advice was the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

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