In 2016, car theft was the seventh most reported crime across Victoria, with almost 24,000 vehicles reported stolen. In 2017, that figure is already 16,000.

In an effort to monitor, track and recover stolen cars, Victoria Police is trialing a new GPS vehicle tracking system. One thousand new cars are expected to have the technology, and the eventual goal is to equip every car in the state with a GPS transmitter.

The police hope the opt-in program will reduce not only car theft but the potential for stolen vehicles to be used to commit other crimes. Victorian Police assistant commissioner Robert Hill tells Broadsheet the new system "is a potential game-changer in terms of eliminating vehicle theft in Victoria".

The matchbox-size GPS devices will be hidden in different places around the vehicle – and can only be activated by police with the owner’s permission, when the vehicle is reported stolen.

“Participants will be provided with detailed consent forms that specify the conditions under which their vehicle tracker can be activated by the police communications centre,” says Hill.

This approach to surveillance concerns Dr Jake Goldenfein, who researches privacy, surveillance and the law at Swinburne University. He says the introduction of a mandatory system such as this could act as a gateway to other, larger intrusions on people’s privacy.

“It’s not entirely clear to what degree this data would be accessible,” says Dr Goldenfein. “Traditionally you need a warrant for things like telecommunications interception but it is not even clear that this would be a telecommunications interception.”

"My questions would be around the situations where the Victoria Police would be able to access this GPS data without the user's consent. It seems when you give a surveillance capability like this it would be unusual for there to be no mechanism for the government to use it."

Hill stresses the importance placed on maintaining strict adherence to “privacy requirements”, saying police will still need to ask for a warrant in order to access the vehicle’s data.

“If there is a need to access the recorded data for investigation or evidentiary purposes, police will still have to obtain a warrant to access the recording via the operator’s system, as they currently do,” he says.

Ray Carroll, executive director of National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, has supported the trial, saying the program's importance outweighs any concerns around tracking peoples' locations – which he believes already exist.

"A lot of new cars on the market have the facilities to already be tracked. Particularly as we move to the smart cars, the self-driving car will be transmitting information constantly as to its location. This is to get law enforcement on the front foot," Carroll tells Broadsheet.

"It is a newer way of deterring car theft that goes beyond the standard and allows police to track the vehicle straightway."

This ambivalence towards personal privacy worries Dr Goldenfein, saying technology such as that being used in the trial strikes him as “sort of another string in the bow, another part of the law enforcement surveillance suite.”

The trial, which starts in September, will be inviting owners of higher risk vehicle models in specific suburbs to participate in the technology.

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