Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Auckland's disturbing panopticon

Earlier in the month, we learned that Auckland was planning to install a creepy panopticon, complete with ANPR and facial recognition, for vague and undefinied purposes. This produced a flurry of OIA requests via FYI, and one of them (for advice from the Privacy Commissioner) has come back. The picture it paints is disturbing. According to the Privacy Commissioner,

  • Auckland Transport is unclear about the purposes of the surveillance and what it will be used for;
  • want to share the cost with police, which raises the spectre that police are using AT to install a city-wide ANPR network by the backdoor;
  • have some entirely innocuous uses for it e.g. counting queues at traffic lights to adjust light phasings, detecting pedestrians so they can trigger a crossing;
  • want to use ANPR to collect trafic statistics. You can use it for traffic time statistics simply by logging the time it takes for a vehicle to pass between two points, but this raises privacy concerns if the data is retained. Worse, they want to use it to monitor traffic-flow "e.g. 10% of cars leaving from point A travel to point B; 30% travelled to point C etc" which raises more serious concerns, since it is actively tracking people's movements;
  • they also want to use ANPR to prevent non-residents parking in resident's parking areas; something which raises very serious privacy concerns (since they're matching vehicles to where people live).

The widespread use of ANPR raises real concerns, and while there are some good uses for it (and traffic-flow stats sound pretty useful), it hinges crucially on how long data is retained for. If data is immediately anonymised ("car1", "car 2" etc) or dumped the moment a vehicle passes the next point or within an hour, its fairly harmless. But if its retained for any longer than that, then what we really have is a widespread databasing of innocent people's movements. And once it exists, it will be used for other purposes - not just by police (who already request camera info, will request ANPR data if it is collected, and already pressure e.g. telecoms companies to retain data for longer than necessary to facilitate access), but by others. The idea of council staff using ANPR to track the movements of their abused partners, or selling the information to debt-collectors, or leaving it open to hackers to exploit and poke through at will is a nightmare. But its what will happen if we collect this. The best way to protect our privacy is not to collect information in the first place, and to destroy it the moment its purpose has passed.