24 August 2015

How traffic cameras are monitoring more than just your driving

Every morning at around 2am a computer in the Winchester police headquarters in Belconnen whirs to life. It sets up a secure connection to the motor registry in Dickson where it begins downloading thousands of records containing the names, dates of birth, addresses, licence and registration details of every person who owns or drives a vehicle in the ACT.

The motor registry data is then compared to the police's own list of outstanding warrants, stolen vehicles, wanted sex offenders or suspects in criminal investigations.

Armed with a hard drive containing the combined dataset, specially equipped squad cars fitted with licence plate scanners hit the streets and start hunting for hits – pings against the data that could identify someone that might need to be taken off the road.

Along Hindmarsh Drive and Athllon Drive in the city's south, fixed cameras are also watching.

Welcome to the world of Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR, where sophisticated tools and software are making it easier than ever for police to track the movement of members of the community.

Initially sold to the public as road safety measures, the systems are increasingly finding uses far beyond their initial design. And plans to dramatically increase the number of cameras on Canberra's and the nation's streets have some experts worried.

While still relatively small in scale in the ACT, plate scanning is a booming industry globally. In the last decade police forces have been able to triple or quadruple their previous arrest rates for mostly road safety related offences thanks to introducing the technology. Some of the most extensive networks allow police to track vehicles in real time from one side of a city to the other with pinpoint accuracy.

Cameras mounted on a vehicle or fixed to a pole or building can capture six or more images of licence plates every second, convert them into text using optical character recognition software, and check them against data stored in the system's memory.

In Canberra the systems have been a huge success. In the first three months of operating the RAPID system (now known as ANPR) police picked up 469 unregistered or uninsured vehicles, 147 unlicensed drivers, 69 suspended drivers and 22 disqualified drivers.

ACT registration stickers have become largely unnecessary too in the age of ANPR.

On their own photos of number plates stored in secure servers would seem to represent few obvious privacy concerns. But it is when that data is paired with other databases the technology starts to raise concerns.

Elsewhere, ANPR has been credited with helping to track terrorists, find and capture violent criminals and dramatically reduce the number of illegal vehicles on the roads. It has been wildly popular in a number of countries, particularly in Britain, where the unconstrained growth of closed circuit television camera networks has led to millions of licence plates captured and tracked every single day.

In many cases, systems that were sold to local communities for relatively benign purposes such as parking security, toll roads or catching speeding drivers, have since been incorporated into the British police's vast surveillance network, and there are plans to do the same thing here.

Board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation Roger Clarke, says the trend has been growing rapidly under the noses of the general public, and has already started in Canberra.

"CrimTrac has been trying to co-ordinate state and territory police for quite some time to try and get mass surveillance in any state they can get into so they can then use that as a beachhead and say, 'well every other state uses it, why don't you?' that's how it started in the UK.

"In Canberra the Greens and the government accepted the nonsense put to them by police (when point-to-point cameras were installed. [The government] wants to get a massive surveillance database just like the UK, the likes of which we've never had before."

ACT Policing says no location data is attached to images from its mobile ANPR systems.

"It is important to note no location information is stored, and the data is therefore not used for evidential or Intel gathering purposes," a spokesman said.

But fixed cameras, be they private or otherwise, are a different story.

The federal government certainly seems to think linking up camera networks is a good idea, promising before the last federal election to set up a voluntary registry of private CCTV cameras that law enforcement officers would be able to tap into, vastly expanding their own surveillance reach.

The ACT has been an enthusiastic adopter of plate reader technology in Australia, first trialling it around the year 2000 at the time large networks were being set up around London and Northern Island to help police deal with the threat of Irish Republican Army bombings.

Canberra currently has a small number of specific ANPR equipped cameras – 14 mounted in ANPR police vehicles and two point-to-point camera zones along Hindmarsh and Athllon drives. It is also used on average speed cameras on the Hume Highway just beyond the ACT border.

But the ACT government is currently considering a report recommending the installation of CCTV cameras placed every 1000 metres along most of the territory's major roads, starting with Northbourne Avenue, potentially within the next year.

Roads where traffic monitoring cameras are being considered

The report, prepared by AECOM for the ACT government in early 2013, found the ACT's current traffic management systems inadequate, and suggested a staged rollout of a sophisticated integrated traffic management system of 119 CCTV cameras, as well as variable speed signs and monitoring stations.

School of Law assistant professor at the University of Canberra Bruce Arnold has been studying the growth of number plate scanning globally and says Canberrans should be concerned about the plans, even if cameras are not initially equipped to scan licence plates.

"There are obvious privacy concerns, because potentially you're able to track everyone in the ACT who's using a car, in most cases a simple software upgrade at a later date is all this is required to add the capability," Mr Arnold says.

"Once it's in place you are left with this fairly expensive network, and you have to justify why it's there, so people come along and say, 'for an extra $5 million we can add functionality, we will be able to catch child molesters or drug traffickers' and so it gets expanded and linked to other data."

"There are votes in security so the temptation will be to integrate the data from this with other sources such as face recognition systems, from the sorts of cameras like we're already seeing in Garema Place and East Row. You could for example track the car I'm travelling in, and then using face recognition you could track me walking around in Garema Place."

Evidence both locally and further afield suggests that where data collection systems have the potential to be used by police or other government agencies for surveillance, sooner or later they will be.

In July 2014 police admitted they had been using data from the ACT's MyWay electronic bus tickets to monitor the movements of Canberrans. Since the MyWay system came into place in 2010 the Australian Federal Police have requested information on bus passengers 27 times, with 16 of those requests resulting in data being handed over.

And members of the public might be surprised just how far the cameras that police are already accessing can reach. When two cars slammed into each other head-on in March 2013, killing an 84-year-old man in one of the vehicles, it was unclear from the scene exactly what happened and who was at fault. But a camera on a passing Action bus recorded the entire incident.

After a lengthy public debate about privacy concerns ahead of the installation of point-to-point speed cameras and assurances that they would not be used for mass surveillance, a damning ACT Auditor-General's report released in March last year found that since they began operating in 2012, police had made 22 requests for images from the cameras, all of which were approved.

Under ACT law, images captured by roadside cameras must be deleted within 14 days if they are not linked to an offence while those that might be are uploaded to a police database. But the auditor's report found that around a quarter of images uploaded to the database and subsequently dismissed were still being retained.

A separate audit in 2010 by the Australian Information Commissioner of the ANPR system found ACT Policing's publicity campaigns had not discussed the system's ability to be used to track people of interest, and police were reluctant to publicise those additional functions too widely, for fear their effectiveness may be reduced.

Looking further afield gives in insight into where privacy issues can arise.

In 2011 in the United States a Northern Virginia man reported his wife missing, prompting police to enter her plate number into their system. The system detected her car at an apartment complex nearby and police were sent to investigate. When they arrived they found the car parked outside with a note on its windscreen that suggested she was in apartment 3C, and asking that they not tow away her vehicle. When they knocked on the door, the woman came out of the bedroom. They advised her to call her husband.

But potentially even more concerning than law enforcement use is the rise of data aggregators harvesting and selling licence plate information to private investigators, debt collectors or anyone else willing to pay.

Private company TLO has begun selling access to its database of more than a billion vehicle sightings in the US, allowing customers to request a report on a vehicle showing where it went, when and its most recently detected location.

In July 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union sent 587 requests for information to police departments around the country asking how and why they use ANPR technology. The resulting report, "You are Being Tracked", found not only was police data leaking out and ending up in private databases (no such breach has been reported in the ACT), but a plethora of private businesses from parking garages to airports, toll roads and security firms were also recording and storing vast databases of licence plate data. One of the biggest users of this data is repossession agents wanting to track down debtors. TLO's website claims the company adds 50 million sightings to its database every month.

"If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals," that report warned.

While there have been no suggestions that the data is being used improperly in Canberra, a number of other businesses around the city have begun recording the details of their visitors, including the National Portrait Gallery, that scans the plates of every vehicle that enters its carpark.

"It is standard technology used in many new car parks in shopping centres and other public spaces … The data is only used in relation to parking," a gallery spokeswoman said, but noted the information could be passed to the police in the event of an incident or accident.

Cameras have also been going in along the Majura Parkway construction zone, and their success has encouraged the government to look at installing more, according to Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury.

"The ability to see the road network and minimise congestion and maximise the efficiency of the network offers real opportunity for commuters to get a better run across the city … but unfettered access clearly is not an acceptable outcome," Mr Rattenbury said.

"It is important that that data can be used, but that it be used in a way that is consistent with privacy principles. Those concerns (about mass surveillance) are fair enough, and this is not about having mass surveillance, I'd expect those principles to be applied across any further use of cameras."

But looking at where its financial priorities lie provides an insight into how important the ACT government views surveillance technology.

The strained 2013-14 budget included big hits to some areas including ACT Policing, which had about 10 per cent or $15 million slashed from its total annual allocation of $150 million over four years. At the same time the union was warning the cuts would result in up to 45 job losses, an extra $5m was found to expand the More Police Safer Roads initiative which included increasing the number of ANPR equipped cars to four.

According to a police spokesman, there are now 14 ANPR equipped cars on the ACT's streets.

The technology is already in use in a number of other states and territories, and there have been several attempts to link up these individual systems.

To see where the ACT's embryonic deployment of the technology could lead to, the small land-locked county of Surrey in the Britain provides a useful case study.

In 2001 Surrey Police introduced one van and four ANPR cameras, staffed by six officers. Using data on vehicles linked to terrorism or major crime, Surrey's ANPR intercept team rapidly increased their number of arrests to 100 per officer per year, four times the British national average. Additional funds to the program began to flow.

By 2013 that number had grown to 168 cameras at 38 sites reporting 3400 positive hits a day for vehicles of interest. Last year Surrey Police also entered into a joint project with the University of Surrey to develop sophisticated convoy analysis software that allows officers to track not just an individual vehicle, but to identify any others who may have been following a similar route and could therefore have been travelling with them. Convoy analysis is already in limited use in both Britain and the United States.

While the US and British experiences may sound paranoid or improbable in Australia, there is significant appetite to roll out systems on a similar scale here.

In June 2008 CrimTrac began work on a scoping study for a nationally connected licence plate scanning network that would allow law enforcement, national security and road transport authorities to track vehicles across the entire country. While the study found implementing such a vast network would be expensive and faced potential technical and legislative difficulties, ahead of the last federal election the Coalition announced its intention to try again.

In its policy to tackle crime, the now Abbott government pledged to commission an urgent scoping study for the rollout of a licence plate scanning network to be operated by CrimTrac for the approaches to airsides and waterfronts.

"This will enable law enforcement and criminal intelligence agencies to identify people and organisations whose attendance at these locations may be unauthorised or suspicious," the policy document claimed.
The document also extolled the virtues of Britain's vast network of CCTV cameras in solving murders and other crimes, and pledged an extra $50 million for local Australian communities to follow British  neighbourhoods and install more cameras. According to a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Michael Keenan's office, nearly $20 million of that money had already been spent by the end of 2014.

CrimTrac's CEO Doug Smith told a Senate estimates hearing in November 2013 that it would be relatively simple to set-up a national database of vehicles of interest that could be accessed by ANPR systems around the country, but said technology, privacy and other issues had been found to be a serious concern when considered in 2008.

"Probably the best example you could use as an analogy is the one that is used in Britain, which is a single national system. It is a very extensive and intrusive system, and the board did not have the appetite at the time and did not approve that particular request," Mr Smith said.

The Privacy Foundation's Roger Clarke remains skeptical.

"This is now mature technology that has been around for a number of years and there is plenty of forward compatibility built into this system. It's quite ripe for function creep to occur because it's easily done, and for governments and police, it's easy to see the attraction."

canberratimes.com.au 24 Jul 2015

This is an indication of how authorities are treating their residents - as inhabitants of a 'penal colony'.

You may have freedom of movement, but your EVERY move WILL be recorded.

Australian are still living the (legal) reality of a penal colony, but are blissfully unaware of this.

1 comment:

AuCorp said...

NOT going to post your spam "Andrew Mary"