Police have indicated that they may wish to go further and introduce additional ways to trigger alerts on someone’s vehicle using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology. Photo / RNZ
A warrant is not required for police to search for license plates captured by CCTV surveillance networks, even when vehicles are broken into at the time of the search or seconds before.
Inquiries for the
Herald have confirmed that the police definition of a “historical” record, and therefore not needing a warrant, includes license plates “captured at, or very close to, the time the query is made.”
Police use of the two private CCTV networks, operated by Auror and SaferCities, has skyrocketed with figures obtained through the Official Information Act showing that officers have embraced the power of the new technology.
The networks are based on images collected by cameras at gas stations, malls, supermarkets and business districts across the country.
He Herald was told that the frequency of SaferCities vGRID searches went from 54 in November 2020 to 11,389 searches in September 2022.
No figures have been provided for the search in the Auror system, and the company says it considers the information to be private.
The other option that the police have is to register a license plate in the private CCTV surveillance networks to which they have access, to receive an alert each time it is detected in “real time”.
The “real time” option requires police to seek a surveillance order from a judge or a prospective production order from a superior officer, to whom the officers have to justify that the crime under investigation justifies the privacy violation involved. .
Advertise with NZME.
The OIA data showed that police were able to access the vGRID system in June this year and had registered 119 specific “plates of interest” on which to receive “real-time” alerts. In the same period, the police carried out 43,758 “historical” searches.
It was this option that police used when searching for the three women blamed for the Auckland-Northland border closure, by falsely listing the vehicles they were linked to as stolen.
The move prompted police to conduct an audit of how its staff use the systems with a report to be submitted to Police Minister Chris Hipkins and later made public.
Police guidelines for using the system were also updated to say: “You should not classify a vehicle as stolen in the NIA if the sole purpose is to track that vehicle and it has not been stolen.”
Privacy advocates have raised concerns about police use of the technology with the New Zealand Civil Liberties Council raising questions about the legal basis of “historical” searching under the Search and Surveillance Act.
Council chairman Thomas Beagle said the law’s definition of “trace”, which required a surveillance warrant, seemed to match the way police carried out the “historic” search and should also require court supervision.
The manual for using the vGRID system shows how the “historical” search could provide police with six months of location data every time a license plate is captured on the thousands of cameras on the network.
A police headquarters spokeswoman said: “If a specific vehicle license plate is captured by an ANPR capable [automatic number plate recognition] camera, and then a search is made for that plate, all results will be returned, including those captured at or very close to the time of query.
Advertise with NZME.
“In these cases, looking for this information after the fact means it’s not a live lead.”
The spokeswoman said police were able to obtain “location information after the fact pursuant to a Search and Surveillance production order, or by consent, and a surveillance device order is not required.”
In the case of the license plate recognition systems, police said the holders of the information recording vehicle locations were the retailers and organizations that operated the CCTV networks which were then fed into the Auror or SaferCities platforms.
Since they had the information, they could consent to the police wanting to access the information on a “historical” basis.
Doing so will “return the results of any previous detections” but will not create a built-in alert for any new sightings. “Any new detections after the consultation will not appear,” the spokeswoman said.
Privacy commissioner Michael Webster had yet to receive the results of the police audit, having last year sought assurances from police about how ANPR was being used.
He said police were expected to use the technology in accordance with the Privacy Act.
“That means that the personal information that is collected must be done in a way that has a clear and lawful purpose and that is proportionate.”
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner provided advice on the use of the technology and has clear expectations for how the Police will use this technology.
“The collection of personal information should not be driven by the technological ability to do so, but by a clear need to collect information to carry out the lawful functions of the agency.”
The legal role of the police in the law leaned heavily on community and national security, but the Privacy Commissioner’s Office said there were also legal obligations under the Privacy Act.
“We expect police to comply with the law and protect privacy and individual rights when using technology of this type.”