Tech gadgets for cops means number’s up for unregistered drivers

BY: GEESCHE JACOBSEN

Sergeant Matt Rees from Mount Druitt police pictured with the newly fitted Automatic Number Plate Recognition system.Sergeant Matt Rees from Mount Druitt police pictured with the newly fitted Automatic Number Plate Recognition system.

SERGEANT Matt Rees says it is “the best bit of kit … since radar”. But privacy advocates warn it poses great risks.

The technology – automatic number plate recognition – has been around for about five years.

But now the state government will buy 100 mobile units for the 400 highway patrol vehicles – a move which, a trial suggests, could double the number of unregistered cars detected. In a five-month trial, eight cars detected nearly 4000 unregistered or uninsured cars, raised more than $2 million in fines, and drivers were charged with more than 3000 criminal offences.

// The technology is simple: three cameras mounted on the car’s roof link to a computer running optical recognition software and a database of stolen, unregistered or suspect vehicles which sounds an alarm every time it finds a match.

Sergeant Rees, from Mount Druitt police, says: “A lot of police ask themselves, ‘I wonder how many stolen cars … are out there.’ This answers the question.” The highway patrol veteran says he was surprised by the number of cars that were only 12 to 18 months old and had not their registrations renewed.

The fine is $516, double that if the car is also uninsured. Often police detect other offences: disqualified drivers, outstanding warrants, stolen goods.

There are 4.5 million cars on NSW roads, but about 90,000 numberplates, once issued, were never reregistered, the Traffic Services Commander, Assistant Commissioner John Hartley, says.

So far this year, nine of the 204 fatal crashes on NSW roads involved unregistered cars – potentially leaving an accident victim, or their families, without insurance and compensation.

But, more worrying, says Mr Hartley, is that unregistered cars have not been checked for safety.

The technology is not foolproof: in a test drive the computer wrongly read a few obscured or dirty plates and could not differentiate between NSW and Victorian number plates.

The equipment can scan and check six plates a second, though typically, depending on traffic, it might photograph about 1500 cars a day.

At the moment the information on cars not matched to the database is deleted at the end of every day. But the potential to use the photos like CCTV cameras to help in the fight against other crime and record the whereabouts of people, worries privacy advocates.

The office of the federal Privacy Commissioner made a submission to a Queensland parliamentary committee warning of the risk of “function creep” and recommended the technology be used only for clearly defined purposes. “… Information collected on individuals not suspected of committing an offence should be deleted …”

The parliamentary committee’s report, completed in 2008, suggested new applications of the technology should be pursed only after public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.

Mr Hartley says there is not enough computer capacity to store all the information, but “it is technology [that] could be switched on later”.

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