Follow every car! The ANPR privacy threat to UK drivers

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 ยฃ2.50p 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.

5 thoughts on “Follow every car! The ANPR privacy threat to UK drivers

  1. Yes, it’s scary. You’ve asked lots of questions. But do you have any answers? It seems unlikely that the technology can be “undeployed” – every time a stolen car or a getaway car is caught, the public pressure to ramp the system up will increase, and the convenience of paying tolls or congestion charges will make many people relaxed about it. After all, they’re already tracking your mobile phone wherever it goes. Can regulating the data be the answer – i.e. the state has access to all the data, the public doesn’t? That doesn’t feel right to me.

  2. I agree you can’t put the genie of technology back into the bottle of the past. However Parliament needs to be much better at defending the rights of UK citizens when changes are proposed that affect their privacy adversely. Here are some ideas:

    • The deployment of new technologies should be subject to an approvals process that includes an independent privacy-impact assessment.
    • The ICO should be given the power – and the resources – to regulate technology implementations, including the power to order them to be changed or shut down on privacy grounds.
    • Recorded license-plate data should be considered “personal information” under the Data Protection Act.
    • Police and other authorities should be required to obtain a warrant before “flagging” a license plate – just like they have to if they want to trace your mobile phone records.
    • Police should be required to apply to the courts before conducting ANPR fishing expeditions or “lockdowns.” They would have to satisfy a magistrate or judge that the operation would be proportionate.
    • The locations of ANPR cameras – and planned mobile-unit deployments – should be made public (as currently happens with speed cameras.)
    • There should be strict legal limits on the length of time for which ANPR data is retained, who can access, transfer or analyse that data and for what reasons.
    • A licensing scheme is needed to regulate private companies, such as parking enforcement firms and marketeers, that use ANPR.
    • It should be a criminal offence to collect or access stored ANPR data without a warrant or license.

    Feel free to add more ideas or challenge mine!

    A last thought: In 2007 1.7 million people signed a petition against road pricing in the UK, partly on privacy grounds. The Government learnt their lesson: don’t debate change publicly if the public don’t stand to benefit from it…

  3. I recently did a freedom of information request to Lancashire Constabulary asking them how many ANPR reads they carry out every day.

    The total anpr reads in Lancashire in a year are

    … wont believe this


    I cannot be the only one scared by that statistic.

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