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Australian government revs up license plate cameras

National rollout could take one to four years, depending on response to a study now under way and how long it takes to secure funding for the project.

CrimTrac, the Australian government's criminal information and intelligence agency, is taking the first steps toward developing a nationwide automatic number plate recognition system to capture the vehicle details of suspects and citizens alike.

Australia already has some ANPR systems fitted to existing road , including , to scan and read the license plates of passing vehicles at a rate of up to five or six cars a second. Once captured, the data is checked against a database featuring a "hot list" of registration numbers and plates.

"We have various agencies across a number of states already using ANPR technology," said Darren Booy, ANPR program manager for CrimTrac.

"At the moment, we're conducting a scoping study to determine the feasibility of implementing a national ANPR network," he said.

The study will conclude late this year, after which a report will be issued to police ministers across the country and a range of other government departments at state and federal levels.

According to Booy, CrimTrac expects a national rollout will take anywhere between one to four years, depending on the response to the report and how long it takes to secure funding for the project.

One of the most extensive ANPR networks has already been installed in the U.K. The nationwide rollout was implemented in 2003 by the Home Office and 23 police forces across England and Wales, to allow police to trace vehicles that have been stolen or used in crimes.

"We looked at the U.K. experience as part of the study; it's probably the most advanced integration of ANPR technology anywhere in the world, and we'll draw on those experiences, but primarily it will have to suit the Australian context," said Booy.

Booy told ZDNet Australia that part of the study will involve an initial approach to market, offering vendors the chance to express their interest in partnering with the government, CrimTrac, and the various state and territory police forces to develop the surveillance network.

CrimTrac will also be conducting a comprehensive privacy impact assessment in conjunction with the scoping study after widespread use of the technology overseas raised the concerns of privacy advocates.

"In developing this system we're very conscious of complying with all stipulated privacy regulations and protections," said Booy.

"What we're looking at is about enhancing public safety, so the benefits to law enforcement have to be considered relative to privacy."

Marcus Browne of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.