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Police can’t use cameras without justification

In brief

  • It is illegal for police to film demonstrators at a lawful protest. 
  • Police use of license plate footage has soared from dozens of searches to thousands in less than 2 years. 
  • License plates count as personal information. New rules say that information can be stored for up to 12 months but can only be used for lawfully prescribed purposes.

Questionable camera use by police

The expanding use of vehicle tracking cameras and an official inquiry into police conduct when photographing the public raise privacy concerns.

SaferCities and Aurur camera networks

Thousands of cameras across New Zealand feed vehicle information into the platforms of one of two private companies: Auror and SaferCities.

Aurur keeps their system’s capabilities confidential. SaferCities disclosed that their vGRID system has 217 Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras and 5000 CCTV cameras.

Warrant required? 

A warrant is required to trigger “real-time” detection using ANPR, but “historic” searches of license plates, including images up until the exact second of the request, does not. However, surveillance, although warrantless, must still comply with the Privacy Act.  

Since 2022, police have used warrant-dependent real time detection 119 times. Warrantless historic searches total over 43,000  over the same period. 

It was through historic searches that three women blamed for the Auckland-Northland border lockdown in October 2021 were located. Police falsely claimed the women’s vehicle was stolen in order to trigger the system to track them down. 

Police have since justified the lie and misuse of the system. They are now seeking to increase the number of options they have to trigger the network’s use beyond entering a vehicle on the “stolen list”, but critics worry about “tech creep”.

Photographing  the public

Complaints also led to questions regarding police conduct when photographing members of the public. A Joint Inquiry by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) and Privacy Commissioner report released September 2022 confirmed three cases of police inappropriately photographing Māori youth. In addition, the report found routine breaches of the Privacy Act. 

Police are subject to the Police Code of Conduct and to oversight by the IPCA. Either the IPCA or an employment investigation are responsible to determine appropriate action in the case of conduct violations. 

What are your rights regarding police surveillance?

Number plates used to identify individuals are personal information under the Privacy Act.

Also, new rules around ANPR cameras state they can only track vehicles if:

  • There’s a serious threat to life and/or safety.  
  • A warrant is obtained under the Search and Surveillance Act.
  • There is cause under the emergency provisions within that Act.

The updated guidelines also say vehicles may not be classified as stolen for the purposes of tracking when they, in fact, haven’t been stolen.

New rules extend up to 12 months – from 48 hours – the length of time police can keep lawfully obtained plate records.

Police must audit their use of ANPR. However, the two private companies controlling the camera networks limit how much transparency the public can expect. Also, liability for privacy breaches rests with individual businesses that own the cameras themselves. 

In regards to photographing members of the public, the Joint Inquiry said photographing demonstrators for no reason in an otherwise lawful demonstration, with the aim of identifying them in potential future demonstrations, is not legal.

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