An Garda Síochána spent €1,984,300 last year on technology designed to check vehicle license plates, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
That spend on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems was up 600 percent from 2019, when the figure was around €280,400.
Increased spending is due to years of underinvestment and the need to upgrade out-of-date equipment, said An Garda Síochána in the FOI response.
“When Covid restrictions were introduced, major investment in additional equipment commenced to aid Gardaí at Covid checkpoints,” it said.
ANPR technology records drivers’ number plates and checks the plates against a database of watch lists including stolen and untaxed vehicles, according to the Gardaí’s Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016 to 2021.
Gardaí began using the software, which is integrated with its internal computing system PULSE, to identify suspect vehicles in 2010, according to the modernisation plan.
According to its website, ANPR is mostly used for road safety, but also to check for untaxed vehicles, terrorist suspects, and trafficking.
“It’s not clear how using ANPR and checking such watch lists would assist gardaí at Covid checkpoints other than to obtain a vehicle owner’s address,” says Olga Cronin, policy officer of surveillance and human rights with ICCL.
Any expansion of state use “needs to comply with all data protection and privacy laws and principles in respect of data collection, storage, sharing, and timely deletion”, says Cronin.
An Garda Síochána hasn’t responded to queries sent last Thursday about the use of ANPR at Covid-19 checkpoints, how it is assisting at checkpoints, and the number of squad cars equipped with technology.
Expanding the use of ANPR systems along with pooling data within a central system for “wider access and analysis”, was set out in An Garda Síochána’s five-year modernisation plan for 2016 to 2021.
The plan also mentions starting to use other CCTV techniques such as “face in the crowd” and “shape in the crowd” biometrics.
At the time the plan was written, Gardaí had 100 squad cars with ANPR, it said.
The modernisation programme also says that a further expansion of ANPR systems will include adding extra “watch lists” to try to remove more dangerous drivers and defective vehicles from the roads.
The data protection commissioner is currently doing a broad inquiry into surveillance of citizens by the state for law enforcement “through the use of technologies such as CCTV, body-worn cameras, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)-enabled systems and drones”.
The commission is auditing whether the data is being handled in line with regulations and laws, like the General Data Protection Regulation and the Law Enforcement Directive.
Under the General Data Protection Regulation, a data protection impact assessment must be carried out if there’s a likely risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals as a result of processing their personal data by new technologies, says Rossa McMahon, a solicitor at PG McMahon with a particular interest in data protection and privacy.
The same applies under the Law Enforcement Directive, he says.
Although Gardaí have used ANPR cameras since 2010, McMahon says he thinks that the bump in spending on the systems falls under processing by new technologies.
“You couldn’t be spending that type of money without doing something new I would think,” says McMahon.
A data protection impact assessment would analyse whether there is a lawful basis for processing and capturing personal data, the legal basis for what is done with data, and how it is stored, says McMahon.
He cites two different scenarios around the potential uses of ANPR, one which could be considered an appropriate use and another where it potentially infringes on the rights and freedoms.
“One is where you have a Garda car that is on patrol and sees someone driving funny or whatever,” he says. Using ANPR to find who the registered owner of the car here is possibly fair enough, he says.
The other is where you have stationary cameras or patrol cars that are parked for a long period of time taking a list of every registration plate.
“The fact that they don’t immediately get the registered owner doesn’t mean it’s not a form of surveillance. They can very easily access and find out the records of the registered owners,” says McMahon.
An Garda Síochána were asked whether they have carried out DPIA’s on the use of ANPR and have not responded at the time of print.