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EenVandaag: 'Police want to continue photographing and storing millions of license plates, privacy watchdog files lawsuit'

It was a 3-year trial and soon the cabinet will decide whether the police can continue photographing and storing millions of license plates. It is a violation of human rights, says Privacy First foundation, which is taking the state to court.

The lawsuit revolves around so-called ANPR (in full: Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras along roads across the country. These are special cameras that automatically scan all passing license plates. Sometimes a license plate produces a 'hit' in the police system. Officers in the area are then notified. Thanks to the ANPR cameras, the police know exactly where the car is currently driving.

'Not immediately suspicious'

"The system gives an indication. It is not yet that you are immediately a suspect, but there could be a reason to check the vehicle," said police chief Gert Wibbelink of the National Unit. (...)

'Millions of license plates stored'

The murder of Peter R. de Vries showed how useful cameras can be. The suspects fled in a car, but the registration number was soon known to police. Once entered into the system, the cameras located the suspects at lightning speed.

Privacy First's Vincent Böhre wants to set the record straight: his foundation is not against ANPR cameras if they are used for policing real time tracking and tracing of possible suspects. "What concerns us is that since a few years, all scanned license plates are also stored. That's millions a day of mostly innocent citizens."

Recorded twice on average

Looking back in time is sensitive due to privacy reasons. Who was where at what time is mainly a private matter. That is why the government allowed it temporarily. A temporary law, section 126jj, allowed all scanned license plates to be stored in a database from the beginning of 2019 until the end of this year.

There are now 919 ANPR cameras active, scanning and storing 5 million photos every day. Every citizen driving down the road is captured more than twice on average. Police chief Wibbelink: "For us, it is useful that photos are stored. If several vehicles are spotted at a scene of a serious crime, we want to be able to identify those persons afterwards. That can then be done with that analysis of license plates."

Law must be taken off the table

The cabinet must decide in the coming months whether to pass the law in 2022. Privacy First, meanwhile, has filed summary proceedings and wants the law off the table. "5 million license plates is completely disproportionate. Most people do not even know this is happening," said Böhre.

There is mass surveillance, he says: "99.99 per cent of all license plates belong to innocent citizens. Also, people do not realise what can happen with the information. Sources of journalists can be found out, but also data of politicians, activists or other people who want to travel anonymously."

"Police can't just browse database"

Wibbelink stressed that agents cannot access the database haphazardly. A special application must be made for it, which must be approved by a prosecutor (...).

"Barely supervised"

Privacy First questions this. "The supervision now lies mainly with the public prosecutor's office and that is not an independent body", says Böhre. (...) Böhre points to a recent WODC report evaluating the temporary 126jj law. It concludes that the [Personal Data Authority] has little to no supervision of applications. "The lack of supervision is an issue that weighs very heavily in European case law. We might just win this case on that point."

What does storing millions of license plates achieve?

The WODC evaluation also examined how effective ANPR cameras actually were over the past 3 years. The police stored billions of photos and over 3,000 requests were made. The report concludes that the photos contribute little to evidence. It is mainly an additional tool.

If you know that a license plate was at a certain place, you have not yet proved who was driving the car. Then you have to use all kinds of other means of investigation, such as telephone records or witnesses. Wibbelink finds it difficult to indicate concretely what the means have achieved (...).

"It is simply not allowed"

According to Böhre, the WODC report confirms he is right: "What bothers us is that license plates of millions of innocent citizens end up in a database every day to solve at most a few cases. In the past, we have successfully challenged the storage of fingerprints and telecom data of all Dutch citizens in court."

This is about exactly the same thing, he explains. "Namely the continuous storage of everyone's data for detection and prosecution. According to European judges, this is simply not allowed. I understand that the police find it annoying that privacy legislation raises barriers, but it is part of the ground rules of a free democracy.""

Source: EenVandaag, 6 November 2021. Read here the whole article and watch the accompanying television report below.

Further comments Privacy First

Recent confusion among national media due to misleading police information

The ANPR law at issue in Privacy First's lawsuit looks at the mass collection and storage of everyone's "historical" ANPR data, also known as "no hits". This should be distinguished from the long-standing police practice whereby license plates of suspicious persons (so-called "hits") can be used for detection. Recently, confusion arose about this among various national media following misleading information on the National Police website. At stated that the police would keep only wanted license plates ("hits") for 28 days and immediately delete all unsought license plates ("no hits"). However, this is incorrect: on the basis of art. 126jj Sv, all passing license plates (with photos, locations and times) of millions of innocent citizens are continuously stored for 28 days for possible investigation and prosecution. On 2 October this led to deception and confusion in various national media following an ANP press release in which the erroneous police information had been copied unthinkingly, see, for example, these news items at Telegraaf, RTL News and Algemeen Dagblad:

Following a complaint about this from Privacy First, the relevant police webpage since removed.

However, the above report by EenVandaag on ANPR once again showed deception by the police: "[The police] stress that officers cannot haphazardly consult the [ANPR database]. A special application must be made for it, which must be approved by a prosecutor, a magistrate judge and there is a central review board." (Source, italics added). It is a mystery to Privacy First to which "magistrate and central review committee" the police are referring. After all, the problem is precisely that review by a magistrate or an independent commission when using ANPR data simply does not exist. This constitutes a flagrant violation of European privacy law where such independent review is usually mandatory.

Privacy First regrets the deception by the police and hopes media will not be misled by this again.