Police step up surveillance activities, use CCTV footage from other companies

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OIA documents show that the police would like to investigate to broaden the use of license plate recognition and to keep the data longer.
Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

This is the first of two stories about the web of surveillance cameras. The second includes comments from Auror, SaferCities, the Privacy Commissioner’s Office, and more input from the police.

Surveillance camera networks that police used to track three Covid-infected women in Northland are spreading widely across the country.

The police have positioned themselves in the middle of a web run by two private companies.

They can use footage from hundreds, if not thousands, of cameras continuously reading car license plates, even though they don’t own the cameras.

They issued new rules yesterday around these Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.

In addition, the police have spent years developing a second private platform of nearly 5000 CCTV cameras from companies, municipalities and government agencies, which 4000 agents can access via a smartphone app.

  • The cameras are watching over us
  • The approach integrates public law enforcement with privatized supervision. This protects the police from liability for privacy breaches and makes it more difficult to get information: when RNZ asked the police yesterday how many ANPR camera officers have access, they said we should contact the companies.

    OIA documents show that the police would like to investigate to broaden the use of license plate recognition and to keep the data longer.

    In 2017, a police report said that if ANPR were “used merely to track stolen vehicles in real time, very short retention periods would be expected”.

    “By expanding the purpose and use of NPI [number plate information] to include crime detection, longer retention periods may be justifiable.”

    Other documents show that the privacy commissioner was concerned last year about a police plan to expand ANPR.

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    “I am particularly concerned about the seemingly low level of privacy knowledge and understanding on the front lines,” the commissioner told police, telling them to reject their ideas.

    Images kept much longer

    The new ANPR rules greatly extend how long the police can keep the number plates.

    In 2014, they said strict protocols meant “all information” would be deleted within 48 hours; the new upper limit is 12 months, others are set at 60 days and six months, depending on the type of study.

    The new limits made for a better crime-fighting tool, police said.

    License plates count as personal information when used to identify someone; the privacy law says that such information should not remain available for long periods of time and should only be used for predefined purposes.

    Two years ago, police told the public: “Our deployment of ANPR has not gone beyond a trial and police use of CCTV is limited in scope.”

    But by then, they had been helping Auckland firm SaferCities set up one platform since 2014, and had been collaborating with Auror on the other platform since at least 2016.

    OIA documents showed that the police had learned lessons from the UK. They watched the police there set up and operate their own massive camera systems, only to encounter years of major public pushback.

    In New Zealand, the private-public camera network has barely muttered.

    At a key moment, in 2017, police said ANPR should be seen as a “precursor” of facial recognition.

    They added that a precinct is “considering the opportunity presented by retailers who have used facial recognition software”.

    They told RNZ yesterday that they had not elaborated on that.

    Avoid liability

    The license plate cameras are used by shopkeepers to spot shoplifters in parking garages and by police to stop stolen cars and track vehicles – requiring high-level approval and sometimes a warrant.

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    In addition to these “real-time” responses, ANPR also provides “evidence for investigations and intelligence profiling.”

    CCTV signage at the bus lane on Khyber Pass Rd

    Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

    The new rules state that liability for any privacy violations rests with the camera owners, not the police.

    “NZP [New Zealand Police] has clearly raised expectations with Safer Cities and Auror about the need for them to ensure that their contracted third parties who provide CCTV images and ANPR data do so in accordance with the law,” police told RNZ yesterday.

    Some foreign studies show that ANPR is better at crime detection than crime deterrence.

    The cameras are most ubiquitous in Auckland, but haven’t stopped a wave of ram raids there.

    In Northland, in October 2021, police used ANPR at least nine times to track down the rental car belonging to three women they accused of violating Covid-19 rules, according to a response from the OIA.

    ‘At the push of a button’

    The new rules deal with how the police ask others for footage, how they must give a legally defensible reason and record what they do.

    Elsewhere, the rules say “third parties may choose to share information”.

    In addition, once an ANPR camera is linked to either platform, it will turn on and the police will have access to that database.

    The volumes are so great that Schouwer has set up a shortcut, saying, “ANPR retailers spend a significant amount of time processing CCTV requests from the police.

    “Auror now automatically retrieves images from ANPR sites at the push of a button.”

    Under the new rules, Auror will keep its own license plate data for 60 days and SaferCities for six months.

    But other documents are less clear.

    A report from the Waikato District Council suggests that records of all vehicles will be kept indefinitely: “All records will be automatically written to a database for police to search at Ngaruawahia Police Station during investigations,” it said in February, while it discussed the installation of two new VIBEs. ANPR cameras on the main road.

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    In 2016, the police said, “Because we get ANPR data from outside agencies, we don’t control how long this information is kept.”

    ‘Every police officer’ uses it

    Police have been working with SaferCities since 2014 to develop its vGRID platform, which now hosts 4,947 cameras in 246 locations and is accessible to 4,000 police officers via smartphone.

    In 2017, they hired the company without launching a tender to add an ANPR feature to vGRID called VIBE. It now has 217 cameras.

    A 2016 police case said VIBE’s license plate data would be stored on SaferCities’ servers.

    This business case was approved although police said at the time, “How NPI will be used and for what is unclear.”

    The police’s second partner, Auror, deals with ANPR and has many more cameras – it didn’t tell RNZ how many – mostly around shops and parking lots.

    Auror told customers this year it covers 90 percent of retailers nationwide.

    “Every police officer is using the platform across the country,” it reads.

    Agents are given instructions on how to use the two companies’ apps on their phones.

    A contract with Auror in 2018 obliged the police to help promote it.

    Auror told a presentation in London that it had shared a stage in the UK this year with New Zealand Police Assistant Commissioner Bruce O’Brien, who oversees the National Intelligence Centre.

    Police started ANPR 10 years ago with cameras on their cars in a public trial; a decade later they only have 18 mobile and 10 fixed ANPR cameras.

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