Garda Traffic Monitoring Plan Raises Questions

The sleepy days between Christmas and New Year are traditionally a time to release news you don’t want anyone to ask questions about. This year two stories found their way into the public domain which, now that we’re all trying to shake off the coma of Roses and tinsel, deserve a closer look.

First, we have Conor Lally’s story on the front page of the Irish Times that there will be a “€6 million Garda camera and computer system??? introduced ‘in the coming months’.

Well, it will and it won’t. The last paragraph, slightly less gung-ho, tells us that the proposal (read: request) to buy the system is with Garda management, whose decisions the author feels are sufficiently predictable to allow him to expect the plan to be approved and rolled out in a matter of months. We even get an insight into the justification used- it will “result in increased revenue in additional traffic fines???.

Let’s leave aside the question of the sorry Garda history of introducing computer systems, and in particular the Pulse system this is touted as linking up with. There’s a whole other story there as to the credibility of the price tag and the timescale for implementation that we’ll leave to another day.

What’s interesting about the Irish Times story is the questions it doesn’t ask. This Automatic Number Plate Recognition system hasn’t just been dreamt up in Harcourt St. It follows hot on the heels of the announcement of a seemingly identical system in the UK.

Reported on the 22nd December 2005 in the London Independent, the British are less reticent about the extra abilities this Automatic Number Plate Recognition will give the police, and what they intend to do with it. While the Irish Times might have left you with the impression that they’ll just be on the lookout for NCT dodgers and car thieves the Independent seems to have a fuller picture of the planned uses.

Here is the big picture:

“Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years… These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.???

And unlike the unthreatening Irish suggestion of just sticking cameras in the front and back of Garda cars, the UK have pointed out that they will also be linking the thousands of public and private CCTV cameras in towns, supermarkets, petrol stations and on the roads into the system.

“’What the data centre should be able to tell you is where a vehicle was in the past and where it is now, whether it was or wasn’t at a particular location, and the routes taken to and from those crime scenes.’ says Mr Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the Acpo steering committee on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).???

The UK police force is more honest about its intentions, at least. After all, if the plan is to track every citizen as they go about their business and record their movements by way of CCTV and then store that information for years it will only work properly if the surveillance is ubiquitous.

If this is the intention of the Garda Síochána also, it is a major infringement of the public’s right to privacy. In the UK, the police compared the utility of this database to the introduction of DNA fingerprinting. I think that’s a useful analogy.

The Irish Law Reform Commission, chaired by The Hon Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, of the Supreme Court, recently published a report on building a DNA database for police purposes. They specifically rejected collecting a comprehensive database on citizen’s DNA as being an unacceptable intrusion into the innocent citizen’s privacy. Indeed, so serious did they consider the potential for breaching the European Convention on Human Rights involved in disproportionate action being taken to breach privacy and bodily integrity rights that the Commission agreed “with the views widely expressed that forensic profiling should primarily be confined to serious offences.???

In addition, the Commission decided that those not convicted of a crime, but whose DNA was taken as part of a criminal investigation, should have their DNA removed from the database after a set number of months. This is a reflection of the Commission’s concerns in relation to the likelihood that holding a DNA sample of an innocent citizen would be at odds with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing privacy.

With that helpful analogy in mind I don’t see that it would be a stretch of the imagination that the Constitutionality of holding a database on the movements of all citizens, regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime is suspect. In addition, its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, which we have incorporated directly into Irish Law in the Human Rights Act 2000 would be decidedly questionable.

For this kind of plan to slide by with a generally unquestioning Christmas press release from the Gardaí won’t do. With luck, Conor Lally will have a follow up story in the coming days. If not, it may be up to tiresome obsessives to try to ask these questions.


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