Editorial: Don't let IT foul the nest

Could the police adopt Google Glass? Michael Foreman looks at what could happen if reality eyewear becomes a law enforcement tool

“Well, I’m not having them in my house,” was the immediate and somewhat indignant verdict on the Google Glass concept from a not too tech-savvy friend. I had just given her a run down on some of the possible Google Glass features and how the device might be abused by a gatecrasher to gain entry to a party for example.

I pointed out to my friend that she might be able to keep Google Glass out of her home but she may not be able to keep this sort of technology out of her life for too long.

For example, I could easily imagine that the police, who have just completed a roll out of iPhones and iPads, might be wearing something very similar to Google Glass in a few years.

In the US at least one fire department has begun trialling augmented reality monocles, and a raft of other public service workers, from ambulance paramedics to parking wardens, might well benefit from Google Glass-like devices.

But augmented reality is just one of several emerging technologies – image/facial recognition software and Big Data/business analytics are others – that have the potential to profoundly and detrimentally alter our daily lives if we allow them to get out of hand.

I’ve seen this happen with present day technology in my native country, the UK, where a burgeoning network of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras are used for traffic control. Two of my elderly relatives there, who had previously boasted unblemished driving records, have been caught by ANPR cameras - one for breaking the 15 mph (24 km/h) speed limit on an access road at an airport and the other who became confused by a complicated box junction that had seemingly appeared overnight.

The problem is that the ANPR network appears to have been more effective as a revenue generation exercise than as a road safety measure, which has been its ostensible goal. Unlike New Zealand, having valid motor insurance is mandatory in Britain and there are stiff fines for non-compliance. If a bank automatic payment on your car insurance bounces and you are therefore, perhaps unknowingly, uninsured then you could be clocked and processed by any ANPR camera you pass. And yet, despite a CCTV network that has grown to more than 5000 ANPR roadside cameras, according to an estimate a couple of years ago there were still around one million uninsured drivers on UK roads.

You would think that the British public would tire of this constant surveillance, where even the most minor infringements will automatically result in a ticket without any hope of discretion being applied. But there may be worse to come. Under recent UK government proposals, a new class of in-car offences, ranging from eating a sandwich to lighting a cigarette while at the wheel, will soon attract £90 fines (about $170). It has been suggested that the only way to enforce these new offences will be eventually via in-car surveillance – either by the next generation of hi-definition roadside cameras with highly advanced gesture recognition or by compulsory spy cameras in the vehicle.

Back in New Zealand I am pleased to observe that we haven’t quite gone down this route yet. Police are testing mobile ANPR cameras but as far as I am aware there are no plans to establish a comprehensive roadside network.

However several local authorities around the country must surely be tempted to use number plate recognition technology to enforce bus lanes for example. On my daily commute in Auckland I frequently pass council employees who are videoing passing cars and recording any cars that stray into the bus lanes.

At the moment council workers must replay the video and manually make a note of the vehicle’s number plate before issuing the ticket. I think it would be pretty easy to make a business case for replacing these operatives with ANPR cameras which could also check whether the rego and WOF are up to date. From the council’s point of view this would provide a highly efficient means of gathering revenue but where would it end? Drones one day perhaps?

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