Millions of Aussie drivers warned as roadside surveillance 'reaches new heights'

The motorist says this technology monitoring drivers looks very similar to street lights and some people may not know what it's looking for.

The camera on Punchbowl Road in Punchbowl (left) and a close up of the camera (right).
From a mount on her dashboard, Layla Ellaz filmed the transportable mobile phone detection camera. Source: TikTok

An Aussie driver has sparked debate after sharing a video where she highlights the purpose of a small crane spotted on the side of a suburban road. Motorists have slammed the technology as an invasion of privacy and questioned why there aren't warning signs alerting motorists to its purpose.

Sydney woman Layla Ellaz came across a transportable mobile phone detection camera in Punchbowl in the city’s southwest this week and complained about pictures being taken of the inside of people’s cars from above, slamming it as an "invasion of privacy".

She also raised questions about why there wasn't a warning ahead of the camera's position like those which are mandated within the state when it comes to mobile roadside speed cameras.

“Ah, the joys of modern technology, where even our cars are under the watchful eye of Big Brother, or shall we say, Big Camera!” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“While I fully support the crackdown on distracted driving, it seems the enforcement method is reaching new heights — literally.

“Who knew that the next time we buckle up, we're also posing for aerial snapshots?"

In a video taken by the 32-year-old driver, from the mobile phone mount on her dashboard, a yellow trailer can be seen parked on the grass alongside Punchbowl Road opposite Perry Park, with a large metal arm jutting out from the top. At one end, positioned over the bitumen, is a camera.

As Ellaz points out the structure looks very similar to the street lights on either side of it and quite different from other traffic infringement cameras and many drivers may not even know that it's a camera.

When Ellaz shared the video on TikTok many commenters agreed with her concerns, with one person referring to “the ol’ crotch cams”, but lots said that the solution was to not use your phone behind the wheel. “Do you realise these are put in place to protect your safety?” another person asked.

“Once you lose a loved one from someone not paying attention while driving, I’m sure you’ll change your mind, privacy concerns or not,” commented another.

Ellaz told Yahoo that many other cameras didn't shoot drivers from high above like these. “If only our vehicles came with a 'privacy mode' button to shield us from unintended crotch and cleavage captures," she said.

“At the very least, a sign indicating the presence of the device or acknowledgment of photo capture would level the playing field,” she said.

Woman sitting in car (left) and the portable mobile phone camera (right).
Ellaz pointed out the the camera looks very similar to the street lights on either side of it. Source: TikTok/laylaellaz

In responding to allegations of privacy breaches, a Transport for NSW spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia that photos taken, stored and used don’t breach the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998.

“Transport for NSW and Revenue NSW adhere to the Act in its operation of the mobile phone cameras and all other safety camera programs,” they said.

“When a potential offence is detected, images will be pixelated and cropped to protect privacy before the images are adjudicated by authorised staff."

All images captured by cameras are reviewed automatically by software. Those that don’t contain evidence of an offence are permanently and irretrievable deleted, typically within an hour.

The penalty for using a mobile phone behind the wheel is $387, or $514 if in a school zone, as well as five demerit points.

In response to questions on why there aren't warning signs leading up mobile detection cameras, the spokesperson said it's about catching motorists out.

"The program focuses on deterring drivers from illegal mobile phone use while driving by enabling anywhere, anytime detection, hence there are no warning signs for these cameras," they said.

"If people believe they are likely to get caught and penalised, they are less likely to commit an offence."

Layla Ella driving (left) and Punchbowl Road (right).
The 32-year-old driver was shocked to see the camera on the side of Punchbowl Road on Wednesday. Source: TikTok/laylaellaz & Google Maps

In the face of backlash over mobile phone detection cameras, the NRMA said: “the technology is there to save lives” and that “if you’re not doing the wrong thing, then you don’t have to worry”.

“Once people start to take their eyes off the road, it’s almost like driving drunk in terms of their capacity to drive a vehicle safely,” Peter Khoury from the NRMA told Yahoo News.

“The laws were brought in and this technology was brought in as a preventative measure ... to stop people getting behind the wheel and taking risks that jeopardise the safety of others.”

Images of people using their mobile phones while driving.
Transport for NSW said taking photos inside cars for the purpose if mobile phone detection doesn't breach the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998. Source: Transport for NSW

He said the organisation called for this technology and continues to support it.

“The road toll is terrible nationally in Australia,” Khoury added, pointing to the 320 road deaths in the first three months of this year. “So we need to do everything we can to reduce risks on our roads.

Even the NSW Council of Civil Liberties agreed that there wasn’t a privacy issue.

“There is no privacy concern for photographs taken of the inside of vehicles driving on public roads,” a spokesperson for the NSWCCL told Yahoo News, as long as the vehicles are photographed driving on public roads and “not parked in secluded areas”.

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