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200 million car photos in NSW Police database -

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TONY EASTLEY: Police in New South Wales have created a giant database storing more than 200 million photographs of cars using roads across the state.

On average the database holds 37 photographs for every car registered in New South Wales, recording where the car was when the photo was taken.

Tonight's Four Corners program on ABC1, follows the data trail of an average Australian family.

Geoff Thompson reports.

(Sound of alarm)

GEOFF THOMPSON: Alarm bells ring for New South Wales police highway patrolman Sergeant Matt Rees.

MATT REES: That one tells me that I need to be careful if I stop that car.

GEOFF THOMPSON: The black car which has pulled up alongside him at some traffic lights was seen at a funeral procession for a Hells Angel motorcycle gang member. He knows this because an iPad-like device mounted on his dashboard has automatically photographed the car's numberplate and alerted Matt to the potential danger within.

MATT REES: There's two forward facing cameras on the roof and one on the side of the car.

GEOFF THOMPSON: It's called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR, and the technology has been running since late 2009.

But it's not just suspect vehicles which are photographed. Every single vehicle is, and the photos are being stored in a searchable database for about five years. To date, there are more than 200 million photographs - an average of 37 for every car registered in New South Wales.

The New South Wales police declined Four Corners’ request to discuss what they're doing with that data, but said in a statement that your car's number plate is not personal information.

The New South Wales Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Coombs, has told Four Corners that while the practice may not be illegal, it does have privacy implications.

ELIZABETH COOMBS: To my mind this issue raises things which are fundamental in the legislation and that's about transparency and accountability. And the matter that you're raising is one that I most certainly would be speaking further to police about.

GEOFF THOMPSON: And what do you want to know?

ELIZABETH COOMBS: I'd like to verify the details of what you're outlining to me, to understand the purposes. I mean, lawful activities as I said are, are permissible underneath the, the Act and such, obviously law enforcement and unregistered vehicles, stolen vehicles fall into that, into that category.

The issues of storage of information for future use, where someone at the moment isn't committing a crime but may in the future is not something which is envisaged in terms of the Act.

GEOFF THOMPSON: So it may present a problem for the police?

ELIZABETH COOMBS: I wouldn't go so far and not, certainly not until we've had some discussions further about that.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Many people might feel that the police photographing and storing information before they have committed an offence is inappropriate. How would you respond to that?

ELIZABETH COOMBS: I think it's unlikely that the majority in the community are aware of the potential of that collection and I think many would actually be quite taken by surprise that that is occurring and there'd be yet another proportion who'd be very concerned about it.

Whilst people want the benefits of technology, they're also becoming increasingly concerned about the issues that need to be managed through the fact that information about them can be so easily collected or information about their appliances or vehicles can be so easily collected, and as you're saying now, stored.

TONY EASTLEY: New South Wales Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Coombs. And Geoff Thompson's full report can be seen tonight on Four Corners at 8.30 on ABC1.