Friday, January 13, 2023

ANPR should require a warrant

On Tuesday, the Herald broke the news of a massive increase in ANPR surveillance by police, from mere dozens of uses in 2020 to thousands in 2022, and that police had lied in their internal documentation when they said the system was audited to ensure use was legal. And today it got worse, because it seems that the police are deliberately circumventing warrant requirements for these searches, by pretending real-time surveillance is "historic":

No warrant is required by police searching for number plates captured by CCTV surveillance networks, even when the vehicles are snapped at the time of the search or seconds before.

Inquiries by the Herald have confirmed that the police definition of a “historic” search - and so not needing a warrant - includes number plates “captured at, or very close to, the time of the query being made”.


The “real-time” option requires police to seek a surveillance warrant from a judge or a forward-looking production order from a senior officer, to whom officers have to justify the crime being investigated warrants the breach of privacy involved.

OIA data showed police were able to access the vGRID system in June this year and had logged 119 specific “plates of interest” on which to receive “real-time” alerts. In the same period, police made 43,758 “historic” searches.

And this is only one of two systems, so the problem is clearly much bigger. And it makes you wonder whether they're applying the same workaround to things like text messages or emails (the interception of which in real time requires a surveillance warrant, but "historic" data - literally the moment after they are sent or received - does not).

But the core problem here is that the police treat this highly invasive form of surveillance - in which people can be tracked in real-time, their past movements traced, and a picture of their life pattern built up - as a private question between them and their (highly cooperative, promoted by police) partners. They talk of information being provided "by consent", but its the "consent" of the surveillance capitalists, not of the people they are tracking. And this partnership and "consent" is clearly being used to sidestep legal limits on surveillance which exist to protect our right to go about our business unmolested.

This isn't good enough. This surveillance needs to be regulated. Ideally, I'd like to see private use of ANPR (and facial recognition) banned. But at a minimum, any police or state access to such information must require a warrant and probable cause. And for proper law enforcement use - rather than gratuitous snooping - it should be no burden at all for police to give a reason to a judge why they need this information.