The Office of the Privacy Commissioner and an independent expert both say Waka Kotahi erred in not publishing a privacy assessment before it started a trial of traffic cameras which can identify distracted drivers.

On May 23, the transport agency announced it would launch the next day a six-month trial of safety camera technology that detects mobile phone use and people driving without a seatbelt. The images would be anonymised and would give Waka Kotahi fresh data about the extent of the problem of distracted driving.

The transport agency did complete a Privacy Impact Assessment and engaged with the Privacy Commissioner for months before the trial started. But that document still isn’t available and won’t be released until later this month, Waka Kotahi said in response to an Official Information Act request.

A spokesperson said this was in line with best practice. “The assessment is an internal document that Waka Kotahi is choosing to release proactively for the sake of transparency. Best practice is for the assessment to be completed before the trial commences, go through a robust review process and be publicly released as soon as practicable. That is the process we are following.”

But a spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner’s office disagreed.

“Being transparent about what happens to people’s information is a key part of any organisation’s responsibility to uphold people’s privacy rights. Therefore, our office expects organisations to publish a Privacy Impact Assessment before using any new technology, or expanding their use of an existing system, to demonstrate that thorough consideration has been given to how it may impact people’s privacy rights.”

Andrew Chen is a research fellow at Koi Tū, the Centre for Informed Futures, and an expert on technology and society. He also said best practice would support releasing privacy vets ahead of the start of a new project or trial so the affected people can be fully informed.

“As a matter of public sector best practice, privacy impact assessments should be released before the trials begin.”

The documents released under the Official Information Act show the seatbelt detection function of the cameras was only discovered by Waka Kotahi shortly before the trial launched. After consulting with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, transport officials decided to wait until they had completed a new privacy assessment before enabling seatbelt detection.

The Waka Kotahi spokesperson said that assessment was completed recently and seatbelt detection will be activated within the next month.

The documents also show the transport agency had dual goals in the trial: gathering data on the extent of the problem and testing the camera technology for potential future enforcement uses.

“We seek a significantly large sample on which to make a sound appreciation of the extent of the problem and evaluate the capability of the equipment to manage large numbers of vehicles,” officials wrote in response to comments from the Privacy Commissioner’s office.

Waka Kotahi did mention the potential for using the cameras to issue fines in its media release and subsequent comments to media, but the emphasis was on the data-gathering component.

In an email before the trial started, an official at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner urged the agency to “flag to the public that while the trial will just be gathering information on the scale of the problem, use of this kind of technology for enforcement may be considered at a separate future stage”.

The agency’s spokesperson said it did this.

“We have clearly flagged to the public that the use of this technology for enforcement will be considered in the future.”

In comments to Newsroom, the spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner’s office said Waka Kotahi would have to take larger considerations into account if it wanted to use the cameras to issue tickets and fines.

That would include whether there are any alternative tools that could accomplish the same aim, getting more certainty of the accuracy of the detection technology and following the office’s guidelines for facial recognition if that technology was being used to identify drivers.

The Waka Kotahi spokesperson said it wouldn’t use facial recognition as part of any future enforcement programme and that law changes would be needed if it wanted to use the cameras to detect and punish offences.

Chen said this technology is used widely overseas and may not end up being controversial if it’s used here.

“If this technology works in the New Zealand context and it comes up positive in a cost-benefit analysis and there’s real potential that using this technology could reduce the incidence of crashes and actually save lives, then I would expect them to make the case to use this technology for enforcement,” he said.

“We’ve got speed cameras, we’ve got T3 lane enforcement, we’ve got red light cameras. These tools were all introduced, maybe there was a little bit of controversy initially – probably not because of the technology, more just because people don’t like getting fines – but over time they become very normalised.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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