Anti-Lockdown Protests See NSW Police Use Data To Make Arrests


By Staff Writer

A well-attended anti-lockdown protest in Sydney on Saturday has resulted in NSW Police forming a strike force to identify the protestors. Nearly two dozen detectives will attempt to identify the approximately 3,500 protestors caught up in the melee.

The number of protestors reportedly caught police by surprise. But chatter about the protest had been circulating on encrypted messaging app Telegram for some time before jumping across to Facebook.

During Saturday’s protests, NSW Police arrested 63 protestors. Since then, police are working through public tipoffs, television footage, and CCTV images to identify more protestors. NSW Police are also beginning to work through social media feeds and are looking at accessing data from multiple points.

A massive digital modernisation program underway at NSW Police combined with various accessible data means identifying protestors is becoming easier than it once was.

Sydney’s public transport card, Opal, is presently recording just over one million trips a week. Owing to lockdown restrictions, that is way down on the usual user numbers. But NSW Police can and do access Opal data without a warrant. The data, which NSW Police use to help trace a person’s movements, reveals when a person passed through a certain location. In the wake of the protest, social commentary indicates Opal is one of the data points NSW Police will turn to.

A grab bag of available data points around Sydney, including road tolls, number plate recognition points, Uber records, and ATM usage, can help give NSW Police an idea of who was in Sydney’s downtown zone on Saturday.

But it is Sydney’s ubiquitous CCTV network and NSW Police’s dramatic AI fuelled improvements in filtering CCTV footage that may prove their best asset.

NSW Police long had a reputation as a technology laggard, but that is changing. In recent years, Australia’s biggest police force has undergone a significant digital transformation effort that has seen legacy IT systems retired, re-architected, or replaced.

The longstanding Computerised Operational Policing System (COPS) used by NSW Police holds more than 40 million records. COPS was recently overhauled as part of the digital transformation effort.

Coming into its own after Saturday’s protests, the recent rollout of an AI/ML-infused Insights policing program will provide investigators with access to a wide range of critical information. Time-consuming tasks like going through CCTV footage is now automated.

Microsoft is behind much of this technology. The software giant has previously courted controversy after police forces overseas used their technology in facial recognition matters. Microsoft says its software sold to NSW Police does not get used for facial recognition. Rather, it says it can identify “objects” that assist the police with investigations.

While ethical considerations currently constrain the potential of AI and ML to assist police, experts think the technology now available to NSW Police can potentially be trained to identify the backpack and clothes a person is wearing, focus on a person’s gait, and zero in on hairstyles – all helpful in identifying people.

The resources being poured into the investigation of Saturday’s protest in Sydney indicates NSW Police will deploy every resource at their disposal to make more arrests.