Hello, my name is Dr Rachel Adams and I’m an Early Career Researcher with the Information Law and Policy Centre, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, University of London. I’m also a member of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition Independent Advisory Group (ANPR IAG).
There are a number of ethical issues that potentially arise from geo-surveillance technologies that involve the collection, processing and storage of large volumes of personal data in national databases, such as the National ANPR Service (NAS). Geo-surveillance can be understood as ‘the tracking of location and movement of people, vehicles, goods and services and the monitoring of interactions across space’. Such systems raise ethical concerns, including interference with group and individual privacy, or if used by the military. These concerns align with broader societal fears about hyper-efficient technologies and fully embedded ubiquitous surveillance systems.
It therefore becomes important to ensure that geo-surveillance technologies and systems, such as the NAS, are legitimate, justified, proportionate and ethical. In this context, ethics can be broadly understood as a set of commonly accepted moral principles that guide or underlie behaviour and actions that are considered good and acceptable within society. Ensuring that the NAS is operating and being managed to the highest ethical standards will promote public trust and confidence in the use of this technology. It will also assist in ensuring that the NAS legitimately balances individual rights and freedoms with the mandate of the police and law enforcement agencies to protect the public from harm and the integrity of the justice system.
One of the key concerns resulting from the collection and processing of data by government bodies is the potential for social profiling which can lead to discrimination or prejudice. This can arise from data processing activities that involve mapping trends or patterns. With regard to policing, this can result in disproportionate anticipatory governance (or predictive policing) which prejudices certain areas or groups of people and which can reinforce social stigma. Strengthening the transparency of the system, and ensuring that officers using it and accessing the database are well-trained to prevent unfair social profiling would go some way in mitigating these concerns.
Another concern regarding the use of surveillance technologies in smart city contexts relates to the complexity of such data gathering and retention processes which cause opacity, rendering individuals in the dark as to where and with whom their data is being held. ANPR data controllers will need to ensure that individuals are able to readily access information regarding where and with whom, and for how long, their data is stored.
A central website would be a useful central hub for information regarding ANPR systems to be accessed. Information available should include: the NASP and other policy, audit and reporting documents on the NAS; the location, and duration of location of overt ANPR cameras in operation; and details of how a member of the public can make a complaint should they feel aggrieved by the NAS.
Public participation and Accountability
Before an overt ANPR camera is installed, the police are required to undertake a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to ascertain, and mitigate against, the potential concerns with such an installation, and to consult with relevant stakeholders in the process. It would be important this this obligation is broadly conceived so as to include as many interested and diverse viewpoints as possible, and to increase accountability of, and public participation in, the governance of ANPR. Such consultations should be publicised widely.
For further information and related documents on the use of ANPR by police and law enforcement agencies, visit the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) website.