By Paul Hemsley and Julian Bajkowski
The Queensland government has expanded its use of Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology to controversially include unmarked police vehicles that will be tasked to silently snoop-out car registration details as they drive-by alleged crime hot spots.
The government says the drive-by surveillance technology is being deployed as part of a test scheme to help police force gather intelligence about suspected offenders in areas where there is known to be criminal activity.
Automated Number Plate Recognition works by cameras snapping an image of a numberplate of a car and then using optical character recognition to translate the picture into data query that is in turn relayed to a police database which delivers back results.
The system is supposed to save police the time and effort of attempting to read a number plate and then manually convey the details to an operator.
Number plate recognition has typically so far been used at fixed point locations like toll road collection points and traffic cameras to identify the registrants or owners of vehicles.
However advances in camera technology like picture stabilisation, motion sensing and better resolution have combined with falling technology prices to make car-based and mobile detection a viable option.
Queensland’s rollout of the technology trial is scheduled to take place over 12 months in unmarked police vehicles and comes as the state government pursues a high-tech overhaul of its law enforcement systems.
The wider aim of this overhaul is to provide better and easier ways for officers to capture evidence and access vital data during investigations.
The most recent example of the government’s technological expansion of police powers included another trial that gave officers smartphones and tablet devices that ran a secure app that enabled police on the beat to instantly search through person, vehicle and address details on the Queensland Police Service (QPS), CRIMTRAC and Department of Transport databases.
ANPR was introduced to the Queensland police force in 2011 to deal with traffic offences but the government has now moved to expand its use into the field of hard criminal investigations of burglaries, sexual assaults, stolen vehicles and drug related offences.
Queensland Minister for Police, Jack Dempsey said ANPR captures an image of a vehicle’s registration number, an image of the vehicle and the time, date and location of the photograph – data points that can all be used to help police investigations.
“The ANPR units will be another tool police officers have to help them keep Queensland communities safe,” Mr Dempsey said.
Mr Dempsey said the government is making sure that the police have the “best equipment available”, which is why $70.6 million was set aside in the 2013-14 Budget for new and upgraded operational equipment.
But there still questions about how effective the technology will be in the fight against crime.
Although ANPR is an additional investigative additional tool for police, a big unknown is whether the data it captures will become meaningful information. For example capturing an image of a number plate will yield information about the registrant of the vehicle but not necessarily the driver of the vehicle at the time of the image being taken.
Queensland Police isn't letting privacy concerns go unacknowledged. Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Ross Barnett said that accountability mechanisms would ensure the appropriate deployment of ANPR units and address any privacy concerns.
“ANPR units will only be deployed for broader law enforcement purposes under the authority of a commissioned officer,” Mr Barnett said.
But the state government is staying tight-lipped about certain details about the technology itself and what it means for police officers using it out of the field.
The government refused to say what kind of information the police will be able to gather through the new technology that they are otherwise presently unable to get.
Nor would the government reveal the supplier of the technology.
A Queensland government spokesperson said that the technology has been used in New South Wales and other parts of the world.
“At the moment, it’s just being trialled in this broader sense to see how it works in the Queensland arena,” the spokesperson said.
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