News & Views

Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) Surveillance During COVID-19

During COVID, police throughout Australia have rapidly and aggressively expanded their already-considerable surveillance capabilities, spurred on by State and Federal governments pushing technological solutions for social control during the pandemic.

In metropolitan Victoria, we’ve seen the police deploy aerial mass-surveillance to check for “breaches of restrictions in Melbourne’s coronavirus hot spots,” using drones1 and helicopters. Police and local councils have also deployed mobile CCTV in parks and other public spaces to “monitor citizens during stage four restrictions.”2 Police monitoring of social media websites has resulted in fines being issued for publishing holiday photos during lockdown,3 as well as arrests for posting about anti-lockdown protests.4 Corporations such as Vodaphone and Google continue to provide mobile phone location data to governments to further track citizens’ movements during the pandemic, to “monitor whether people are following social distancing restrictions.”5

Amid all this, we’ve also witnessed the expansion of Automated Number Plate Recognition technology to profile and record the movements of citizens in vehicles, particularly at State borders which have closed during the pandemic.

What is Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)?

ANPR is an automatic system that is designed to identify and record large numbers of license plates in real time. It is widely used by police throughout Australia. In Victoria, the majority of Highway Patrol vehicles have already been fitted with the technology—a fleet which Victoria Police calls “BlueNet vehicles.”6

As well as being mobile, ANPR cameras may also be stationary. They are widely used on toll-roads for example, but can also be installed on traffic lights, power poles, or the entrance or exits of buildings such as parking garages or service stations for instance.

The police say the use of this technology assists their work to identify stolen cars, cars registered to drivers with invalid licenses, or drivers with outstanding warrants against their names, but its uses have also included identifying persons of interest associated with a vehicle, or monitoring the movements of citizens to and from protests.7

At present, the use of ANPR technologies is unregulated in Victoria, and it is unclear what records Victoria Police generate, keep, and/or cross-reference when using ANPR. It is not known how long such data is kept, and for what other uses it is made available for. There are also currently no legal protections to prevent against abuses of the technology, and it is unclear how existing privacy regulators will approach the technology as its role expands.

How does ANPR work?

ANPR works through the use of cameras which feed images into software that extract patters and shapes from the images using a process called Optical Character Recognition. This process recognises letters and numbers in a picture in real time, and turns that information into data that the computer can then process very quickly. Automated searches of shared government databases can then be conducted based on this data extracted from images. Cameras are usually configured to capture images from every direction, ~360 degrees from the source, and the time from capture to a match can be carried out in a matter of seconds. The ANPR cameras that Victoria Police use are capable of scanning several thousand number plates per hour.8

In terms of databases, the Victoria Police ANPR system can identify a number plate and then automatically query the VicRoads database to return the registered owner’s name, the owner’s license details, and the address that vehicle is registered to. This information is then processed by proprietary algorithms to alert the police to “vehicles of Interest” or to “Persons of Interest” which may be associated with specific vehicles. Police may then pull a driver over to confirm information received from the database. Individual users can also be manually flagged on the database, which would encourage police on the road to pull them over when their number plate passes through a scanner.

Police can and do use this information for various purposes, although it is unclear what records Victoria Police generate, keep, and/or cross-reference when using ANPR.

The technology is a fundamentally different approach to policing specific targets, because ANPR allows law enforcement to identify every single vehicle that passes a scanner in real time. This data can be stored indefinitely and expanded upon every time a vehicle is identified in public. Such mass-surveillance vastly increases police powers to monitor people in public, and track and record their movements over time. It also produces a database of historical records—the date/time, direction, and registered owner of where all captured vehicles have been travelling. Modern data mining analysis on a database like this reveals very granular detail of the life of citizens, building up comprehensive pictures of where each vehicle has travelled throughout specific times and dates.

The safety, privacy, and future-use of this information has not been publicly established.

Watch: Victoria Police’s own promotion of ANPR technology. Published 27th March 2019. Source: YouTube.

Expansion During COVID

As early as April, police in New South Wales publicly stated they would be using ANPR technologies to specifically track citizens’ movements during COVID,9 and other States soon made or reiterated similar announcements. Officials in Victoria made similar claims in July, when also announcing the use of drones to monitor public spaces.10

Media reports seem to focus on the use of ANPR at border checkpoints, and throughout “declared restricted areas” in Melbourne11 but it is important to remember that the majority of highway patrol cars in Victoria have ANPR capability, so the true extent of its use is much more pervasive.

What are some of the concerns?

International commentators have criticised the safety of this new technology, particularly what it may mean for privacy, civil liberties, and the right to protest. Some of these concerns are:

Invasions of privacy
While there is no right to privacy in a public space, and no prohibition on taking photos of public number plates, current legislation was not drafted in an environment where police had the power to instantaneously surveil every car they pass, and existing privacy laws do not provide adequate protection from cutting-edge surveillance technologies.

Data security
ANPR produces a huge amount of sensitive data which can be stored indefinitely. Victoria Police and the Department of Justice have not confirmed how the data is being stored, how long it is being stored for, or what limitations or protections exist on who can access it. The data is covered by existing privacy legislation, but these protections are weak and not adequate to modern technological capability.12

Abuse of data by law enforcement
Persons with access to ANPR databases can track and monitor people by recording where certain number plates are travelling. Without data protections and strict security auditing protocols, this information could be used to nefariously monitor citizens, and there is a real risk of this sort of abuse being rampant. Victoria Police already has a cultural problem where officers have been known to conduct unauthorised record checks on unsuspecting members of the public, or trade confidential information from police databases to politicians, as investigated by IBAC as recently as January of this year.13 ANPR has already been misused in the United States,14 Canada,15 and the United Kingdom,16 and it would be naive to assume ANPR data would somehow be exempt from already existing abuses in Victoria. The technology would allow police to identify drivers of vehicles being driven to and from protests.

Over-policing of marginalised communities
Police use the technology to identify stolen cars, unregistered drivers, or drivers of outstanding warrants. These legal issues are more likely to arise in communities where people are already socially or economically marginalised. Once a car has been tagged as ‘unregistered’ for instance that vehicle, even once lawfully registered, may remain as a tagged vehicle on the system, which precipitates additional traffic stops. People within these communities are already more likely to be unfairly targeted by police on class or racial grounds, and increased surveillance through ANPR might serve to legitimise or ‘build in’ discriminatory profiling. On the other hand, more affluent areas might largely escape surveillance due to lower rates of economically-motivated infringements.

Chilling effect on protest and freedom of movement
ANPR allows police to identify vehicles at a protest site, on their way to a protest or in car convoy’s or to track particular cars. Widespread surveillance technology may give rise to a feeling among activists and protesters that they are unable to live and protest freely and anonymously in a purported liberal democratic society. This may also lead to a reluctance to engage governments on  social and political issues, eroding civic engagement.

Scope Creep and extensions of the use of the technology
The use of ANPR to enforce lockdown restrictions was announced unilaterally by Victoria Police and has received little to no public discussion. It is not clear what limits, if any, will be placed on Victoria Police’s ability to use ANPR databases, and Victoria Police themselves have indicated that they plan to greatly increase their reliance on the technology in coming years, using data generated and collected for all sorts of analysis outside of simply identifying vehicles.

Its expansion will not be reduced when COVID is over
In light of above, there is a real concern that not only will the expansion of the use of ANPR not be curtailed after the crisis is over, but will be expanded and normalised as indicated, much like other espoused ‘temporary’ surveillance escalations that have remained in place.17

What protections exist?

ANPR is not regulated nor explicitly provided for under current Victorian legislation. This means there are no legislated provisions that clearly outline or limit the use of the technology, or confirm what uses of the technology would be considered unnecessary incursions into public privacy. Data produced under ANPR is covered by the Privacy and Data Protections Act 2014, which requires public sector organisations to collect only necessary data, and to ensure the security of their data. However, the obligations under this Act are vague and contain numerous exceptions where the information is required for law enforcement purposes.

No privacy regulator has yet investigated the application of the law to ANPR, or evaluated how appropriately the data is being used. The Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner has the power to conduct investigations under the Act and can take action requiring the organisation to comply with the law, but they are a toothless organisation in terms of actual enforcement and have somewhat of a history of toadying in relation to the police.

The future of ANPR

As of September 2020, there have been no publicised cases of Victoria Police taking action against drivers solely on the basis of an ANPR identification, and such a use would be hard to determine.

Further, given current delays in the Victorian court system, it may take some time for information about cases involving ANPR to become available, and for a clear picture to emerge of the sort of surveillance of Victorian drivers that has taken place.

In Victoria Police’s strategic outlook to 2025, they indicate a plan to increase the number of ANPR scanners in Victoria by mounting stationary scanners on traffic lights and speed cameras around the state. They also intend to expand their use of ANPR data, and use it in conjunction with data analytics tools for “prevention of crime” rather than merely crime-response.18

As we’ve seen with other technologies such as facial recognition cameras, predictive policing exacerbates all sorts of problems with algorithmic bias,19 racial profiling and discrimination,20 increased privacy invasion,21 over-reliance on technology,22 and just plain incorrect predictions.23 Adding ANPR to this mix only increases technological solutionism in society that is already problematic.

Likewise, as ANPR is a mass-surveillance tool, MALS rejects its use, and calls on the Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner (OVIC), the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), to investigate and scrutinise the infrastructure that Victoria Police has already deployed.

Publicly available reports of this kind could provide some valuable clarity as to how Victorians’ movement data is being tracked and recorded by the unrestrained use of ANPR.

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  1. Victoria police launch drones and appeal to public to dob in coronavirus crimes; Kelly Burke; 7 News; 3rd July 2020
  2. ‘No justification’: Anger over mobile surveillance units at public parks; Cameron Houston; The Age; 6th September 2020
  3. Victorian couple fined $3,300 over year-old holiday snaps; Summer Woolley; 7 News; 13 April 2020
  4. Pregnant mother arrested, footy identity visited in police crackdown on anti-lockdown protests; Erin Pearson and Rachel Eddie; The Age; 2nd September 2020
  5. Mobile phone location data used to track Australians’ movements during coronavirus crisis; Ben Grubb; Sydney Morning Herald; 5th April 2020
  6. Eyes on the road: Number plate cameras for all highway patrol cars; Emilie Baxter; The Age; 13th February 2019
  7. Activists repeatedly stopped and searched as police officers ‘mark’ cars; Paul Lewis and Rob Evans; The Guardian; 26th October 2009
  8. Victoria Police to get real-time number plate recognition capability; Asha Barbaschow; ZNet; 17th October 2018
  9. Number plate recognition and cameras to identify those who shouldn’t be out over Easter; Laura Chung and Lisa Visentin; The Age; 8th April 2020
  10. Elite police, drones to roam lockdown suburbs amid COVID-19 spike; Erin Pearson; The Age; 2nd July 2020
  11. Police to scan number plates, defence to support roadblocks as Melbourne locks down; Bianca Hall and Erin Pearson; The Age; 7th July 2020
  12. Review of Australian Federal Privacy Laws; Roger Clarke
  13. Unauthorised information checks, leaks a police corruption risk: IBAC; Farrah Tomazin; The Age; 8th January 2020
  14. What You Can Learn from Oakland’s Raw ALPR Data; Dave Maass and Jeremy Gillula; EFF; 21st January 2015
  15. Big brother or better police work? New technology automatically runs license plates…of everyone; Shawn Musgrave; Boston Globe; 9th April 2013
  16. It’s Time to Close Down the Police’s “Domestic Extremism” Databases; Network for Police Monitoring; 5th February 2019
  17. Facial recognition system rollout was too rushed, Queensland police report reveals; Josh Bavas; ABC News; 6th May 2019
  18. Victoria Police Blue Paper 2019, page 50
  19. Predictive policing algorithms are racist. They need to be dismantled; Will Douglas Heaven; MIT Technology Review; 17th July 2020
  20. Predictive policing poses discrimination risk, thinktank warns; Jamie Grierson; The Guardian; 16th Sepember 2019
  21. ‘Predictive policing’ could amplify today’s law enforcement issues; Andrew Tarantola; Engadget Magazine; 30th June 2020
  22. Police Technology Shouldn’t Replace Community Resources; Kami Chavis Simmons; New York Times; 18th November 2015
  23. AI-based predictive policing systems widely used in US and UK, despite concerns about privacy, and flaws in the approach; Glyn Moody; Privacy News; 27th March 2019