Police must heed privacy concerns

It is disconcerting to discover the police have a poor grasp of privacy law.

If there is any public agency the public expects to understand laws and obey them, it is the police.

And it is not as if privacy law has suddenly been thrust on the New Zealand population.

The Privacy Act has been around since 1993.

Over the years, plenty of people and organisations have used its name in vain, often by exaggerating its reach, either in ignorance or to suit their own purposes. Others have chosen to overlook its ramifications.

But the revelations uncovered in the recent joint report from the Privacy Commissioner and the Independent Police Conduct Authority relating to police taking and keeping of thousands of photographs of people, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, are in a class of their own.

It seems that instead of embedding privacy principles when police introduced smartphones about a decade ago, there has been a lackadaisical attitude to their use for photography/videos with thousands of images taken and stored on individual officers’ devices.

Regardless of the legality of the photo taking, the lack of proper storage systems would seem to make it difficult for many of these images to be accessed in a useful way.

The report highlighted the lack of understanding officers had about privacy principles, something echoed in the knee-jerk reaction to the report by the Police Association.

Its leadership might have been better to take a few deep breaths, read the report properly, and reflect on it before calling for it to be withdrawn or ignored.

As deputy privacy commissioner Liz MacPherson says, crime-fighting will not be stymied by stopping police taking masses of photos of people unlawfully.

The threshold that there needs to be a reasonable possibility that a photograph is relevant for a current investigation or a likely one is surely not too difficult to grasp.

Police also must understand that their photography is in a different class from anyone else taking photographs in public places.

As Ms MacPherson put it, when police officers are in uniform and operating as police officers, they are not members of the public, but an agency under the Privacy Act.

They are the police and consequently they must meet a higher standard.

Police turning their cameras on people when they were annoyed by being photographed or video-recorded by a member of the public was criticised in the report.

Annoyance was not a lawful basis for such information gathering.

If the police want to ensure continued public confidence, their practices must comply with the law. Implementing the recommendations from this report should be seen as an opportunity to improve their standing rather than an impediment to crime fighting.


And another thing

It is difficult to see the Christchurch Call will get far with its research into algorithms and how they affect people’s online experiences, particularly when it will not involve big players Facebook, Google or TikTok.

The call community is a voluntary network launched by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron seeking the elimination of terrorist and extremist online content after the livestreaming of the horrific mosques killings in Christchurch in 2019.

Supporters pledge to work together to stop violent and extremist content being posted, but without compromising human rights including freedom of speech.

Closer to home, perhaps there is a job for Ms Ardern to do in addressing the puzzling lack of promotion of the recent review of the Government’s Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa which was established in 2020 for public agencies using algorithms.

The charter focuses on the uses of algorithms with a high or critical risk of unintended harms for New Zealanders.

Much more needs to be done to help us all understand their impact, and their possible downsides, on our daily lives.