10 March 2020

ANPR systems do not violate privacy if used under clearly defined rules

In recent years, ANPR systems have proven to be useful in combating theft, organized crime, and terrorism, but they have also been subject to criticism from privacy protection advocates. Are their concerns about data collection and its abuse justified?

Several studies and other research have shown that police patrols equipped with ANPR technology are dramatically more effective in arresting suspects as well as in convicting offenders. The demonstrated benefits of Automatic Number Plate Recognition camera systems recording the presence of a vehicle in a specific location at a specific time of the day or night include faster criminal proceedings, higher car theft clearance rates, and the detection of offences such as driving without compulsory insurance or a valid technical inspection. Moreover, by collecting the data the police acquire new analytical capabilities for their investigation, including witness identification.

What opponents object to

Despite all of its benefits, there are some critics who object to the use of ANPR as well as other “surveillance” systems. Privacy protection advocates in some countries argue that there is no legal basis for the use of such monitoring technology and data collection. They are concerned about cameras constantly detecting number plates, even if nothing seems to be happening, without citizens being aware of it. Especially if such data can be relatively easily associated with specific individuals.

The cases of abuse of confidential databases for purposes such as to find information about existing or potential romantic partners, neighbours, or journalists who had nothing to do with any law violation investigation are not isolated.

Such risks are even higher if it is not clear who has access to the information. For example, police departments in some states in the US share ANPR data with hundreds of other authorities, which greatly increases the risk of abuse, including the possibility of selling or publishing the databases of scanned number plates together with geolocation data.

At the end of 2019, police, road traffic authorities, and city councils in the UK alone used nearly 9,000 ANPR cameras that scanned billions of number plates a year. Critics warn that with the ANPR being deployed at the entrances to shopping centres, enclosed residential estates, and some neighbourhoods, the number of records of people’s movement is multiplying. Hypothetically, interconnecting the databases would make it possible to accurately reconstruct the movement and habits of an individual and predict where he would be in the coming days.

What are the limits

While many people may not consider the information about how much time they spent parking at a parking lot, or where they were going with their vehicle as something to be secretive about, others see it as a breach of privacy. The concern for ANPR camera systems being abused for discrimination and the unauthorized surveillance of political opponents, journalists, or other people is legitimate.

However, we should not forget that ANPR’s primary mission in the service of the police is to make our world a better and safer place. When properly used under clearly defined rules, the technology has demonstrably fulfilled this mission. So, rather than boycotting the solution or looking for legal gaps that may make the deployment of the technology problematic, the challenge for the future should be to think of ways to eliminate any mistrust, doubts, and risks. In other words, how to set up rules, legislation, and processes so that it is clear where the records are stored; what they can be used for; who can access them and under what conditions; if and when they can be combined with other data; and how to protect data from unauthorized access and possible abuse.