License plate cameras also scanned the faces of motorists

Police cameras along the Dutch highways have photographed motorists and co-drivers for the past five years, while the legal basis for this was lacking. The photos were used, among other things, for investigative purposes and criminal investigations, according to an internal police report that was viewed by NRC.

These are cameras that are part of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), a system of a total of three hundred cameras. The cameras are located along highways and provincial roads and check the license plates of passing vehicles. For example, a motorist who has an outstanding fine can be picked off the highway by a motorcycle cop. About a fifth of ANPR devices consist of advanced cameras that take sharper photos and can also record the occupants in addition to the license plate. This while ANPR cameras are intended for “license plate recognition and there is usually no legal basis for also showing people recognizable”, according to the internal police report.

The police have stopped using the cameras for detection and intelligence since 1 June this year. A police spokesman: “The only legal ground for using faces in ANPR photos is a warrant for systematic observation.” This is a heavy substance that is not often used.

The scientific office of the Public Prosecution Service is investigating whether there is another legal basis for the photos. The Public Prosecution Service says “pending the investigation” it will no longer use the photos for “criminal purposes”. According to the Public Prosecution Service, the photos have been used in a small number of criminal cases.

It is not known how many motorists and passengers photos are stored in the police system, the police say: this is probably a significant number, because the 55 cameras take about 350,000 photos every day.

According to the police, the cameras do not automatically identify the driver or passenger. This depends on the camera and sun position and whether the driver has, for example, the sun visor down. The cameras have gotten better in recent years. Since 2017, the police have been using cameras that can record the driver in addition to the license plate.

Save license plates

In 2019, the powers of the police with regard to the use of the ANPR cameras were expanded. The pictures of the license plates can be stored for 28 days, where they were previously not allowed to be stored at all. In this way, the police hopes to trace suspects of “serious crimes”, she writes in the annual report 2019.

Because of the ‘impact of the power’, it was ‘granted for three years only’ by the Minister of Justice. At the time, no permission was granted to use photos of faces.

The license plates are stored in a database called Argus. Agents can request registration numbers for specific investigations in the event of a concrete suspicion. For example, during the 28 days that the data is stored, an agent can check whether a car was at a location at a specific time.

Last month, the ANPR system came in handy in locating the two men suspected of direct involvement in the murder of crime journalist Peter R. de Vries. The license plate of their getaway car was entered into the ANPR system shortly after De Vries was shot. The route the car took could be followed. An hour later, the two suspects were run over and arrested near Leidschendam.

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