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Who’s watching the watchers?

There was a story published on RNZ’s website yesterday that should give us all pause.

Written by redoubtable reporter Phil Pennington, it’s another instalment in a series spanning several years about the increasing levels of surveillance that police can subject citizens to without much, if any, oversight.

The article’s focus is on the way police are using automated number plate recognition [ANPR] cameras and how this apparent ‘tech creep’ is currently being challenged in several court cases on the basis that [a] this use amounts to a tracking device without a warrant, in breach of search and surveillance laws, and [b] a breach of the Privacy Act and the Bill of Rights.

A major wrinkle is that the vast majority of the [at least 5000] cameras being used in this way are actually part of two privately owned networks that police have access to but do not operate themselves, an arrangement that reportedly shields police from liability for privacy breaches and appears to be a useful dodge for declining information requests as well.

The Criminal Bar Association, Pennington reports, is alarmed by police use of ANPR, which it contends is “just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of surveillance methods police are not being open about”, and insists “we need to have a public conversation about the appropriate level of state surveillance in a free and democratic country”.

To be fair, two years ago Police Commissioner Andrew Coster wrote an editorial about “the appropriate boundaries for police intelligence collection and what trade-offs are we, as a community, prepared to make in the interests of safety” in an apparent effort to spark a public discussion on the topic.

However, the editorial failed in its objective – perhaps because at the time the majority of New Zealanders were happy to sacrifice various societal norms on the altar of our covid-19 response [even Coster’s contention that police access to information is necessary “to understand potential offenders’ movements, associations and activities” seemed not to raise a flicker of concern, despite the pretty clear ‘pre-crime’ implications].

Indeed, the covid response provided an example of misuse of the ANPR system when police falsely reported a car as stolen so they could track three women who were alleged to have breached the border between Auckland and Northland in 2021.

As Pennington reported in September last year, senior police said two things about that particular case: it was not an appropriate use of the system, and officers would be reminded of the rules, “but also that in Northland, during the covid-19 emergency, it was the only means they had to activate both camera networks, and was done with ‘really good intentions’ to locate the women who posed a health risk”.

The justification of ‘good intentions’ can’t help but bring to mind the wise words of CS Lewis when he wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.

The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

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