CrimTrac CEO Doug Smith has warned against implementing a national automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system, despite a pre-election proposal by the Coalition.
In the month before the September election, the combined Liberal and National parties indicated if elected, the Coalition would commission an "urgent" scoping study for the rollout of an ANPR, to be operated by CrimTrac.
The announcement raised suspicions that a dormant plan to establish a nationwide database of vehicles and vehicle movements may be resurrected
CrimTrac's Smith revealed in a senate estimates hearing yesterday he had been contacted by the Attorney-General’s Department in October with regards to the ANPR election promise, which involved tracking the movements of criminals and gangsters near airports and waterways.
Smith told the hearing the capability needed to fulfil the Coalition’s vision was more simple than expected and did not require one national system.
“It would mean making available vehicles of interest that are of interest to police officers around the country on a central database and then making that available to ANPR systems around the country,” he said.
The central ‘vehicles of interest’ list would only include information relating to criminal activity, rather than the extensive regulatory data stores that state systems used to track registration and the movements of speeding vehicles.
“[We] indicated back to the department that it was a very feasible thing to do,” he said.
Smith said as far as he knew the CrimTrac board and state police commissioners had not changed their stance on a national system since the option was unsuccessfully canvassed in 2008.
“I think the best way to summarise the  decision is that the investment was far too high," he said.
“From recollection it was around a $40 million investment at the time. At the same time quite a number of states and territories had extensive investments of their own that would have emulated the technology.
“The risks were very extensive, because we were talking about a full national number-plate-recognition capability that would do all of the things you possibly could, but at a national level."
He described the notion of trying to channel all of the different data standards and legislative frameworks behind the state-based systems into a single national platform as “trying to herd the cats” in a policy and technology sense.
“In some states the information is regulated in a different way. In the ACT, as I understand it, the retention period of the record is much shorter than it is for, say, New South Wales,” he said.
It was important policy makers kept their eyes on the desired outcome rather than getting carried away with the technology, he added.
“Whilst the technology exists to have a national number plate recognition capability, the first thing you need to do is go back and ask why we need that,” he said.
Any decision to establish a national database is also sure to set alight a range of privacy concerns.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner wrote in 2008 while it “recognises the important policy objective of improving road safety,” the “collection of large amounts of data can also present significant risks for individuals, agencies and organisations”.
“The collection and recording of such information regarding individuals going about their day to day lives may not meet the expectation many in the community may have in terms of interacting in society free from unnecessary and intrusive surveillance,” it said at the time.