There are now over 10,000 Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras covering the UK road network. These are capable of recording, recognising and tracking your car by its numberplate. The data from the cameras is collated and stored at a national centre run on behalf of the private, profit-making company ACPO, where it is held for at least two years. In some cases a detailed image of the driver and front-seat passenger is retained along with license plate information.
Mobile ANPR cameras are also used by some police forces. These are deployed in popular locations such as shopping centres for so-called “lockdown” operations, where every vehicle entering the area is checked against records as police fish for reasons to impound cars and fine drivers. One such operation in November 2008, which was filmed for television (relevant segment starts at 21m30s), saw 369 vehicles stopped, 84 tickets issued, 51 cars seized and 12 people arrested at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent – in a single day.
It’s no longer a case of “follow that car” but “follow every car.”
ACPO defend their wholesale surveillance system by pointing to a few high-profile cases where ANPR evidence has formed part of a prosecution. They’re less keen to highlight the cases of mistaken identity, inaccurate record-keeping and official ineptitude that have left innocent people standing on the kerbside holding a ticket as an officer drives away in their vehicle. Even if these drivers manage to prove the database wrong they can end up paying hundreds of pounds in fees to get their car back – if it hasn’t been crushed.
Supporters of ANPR technology claim vehicle license-plate data is exempt from the Data Protection Act because it’s not “personal information” (it’s about the vehicle not the driver). However the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) sells access to the names and addresses of registered vehicle-keepers for £2.50p a time, making this distinction academic.
In common with the National Identity Register, National DNA Database and all the other tentacles of the database state, once this information is collected there’s nothing to stop it falling into the hands of other public or private organisations, either by accident, commercial arrangement or official decree. Wouldn’t you like to know where your partner really drives off to while you’re at work? I bet there’s a good number of private investigators who would.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is currently “working with” ACPO to determine whether the national ANPR network is “appropriate and proportionate” – which means nobody bothered to ask those questions before the system was commissioned.
Who stands up for the public interest in the rush to implement new technologies like ANPR for official convenience? I don’t recall there being a public or Parliamentary debate on giving the police these game-changing surveillance powers. Has anyone considered the down-side of collecting all this data?
Somehow I doubt it.