A number of recent Freedom of Information requests relating to Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems used by police in the UK raise serious concerns about where the technology is headed.
The latest Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) 'ANPR Strategy for the Police Service - 2007/2010' reveals plans to make ANPR a "core policing tool" by 2010. The document states:
A number of key milestones have been identified within constituent projects for ANPR with an intention that these will support the embedding of ANPR into core police business be[sic] March 2010
A further illustration of the scale of ANPR in the UK was revealed in the answer to a parliamentary question last week about the National ANPR Data Centre (a national store for the ANPR data captured by police forces), the Home Secretary Alan Johnson explained:
The NADC is currently under development and test. There are 40 police forces [out of 43] now supplying data and all police forces will be doing so by the end of 2009.
But how on earth have ANPR cameras become "a core part of what the police service does on a day-to-day basis"? When was the issue debated, the public consulted and what legislation has been introduced to make this possible? To answer this we first need to look at the beginnings of ANPR expansion.
The ACPO strategy points out that: "'Project Laser' was the first pilot for greater use of ANPR that was conducted in 9 forces". More information can be found in a 2004 report 'ANPR - Driving Down Crime - Denying Crminals the Use of the Road' which details ANPR's humble beginning as "a great asset in tackling the ‘underclass’ of vehicles that are incorrectly registered, untaxed and uninsured". The report states:
In 2002, a number of police forces increased their use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems to include dedicated intercept officers. These officers were able to intercept and stop vehicles of interest identified by the ANPR systems and question the driver and/or passengers as appropriate.
The introduction to the 2004 report includes the following comment about the future of ANPR by then Home Secretary David Blunkett:
The experience gained in the pilot, highlighted by the evaluation work, is likely to lead to the introduction of ANPR enabling legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows.
So what "ANPR enabling legislation" was introduced and when?
To answer this we turn to two further Freedom of Information requests. The first request made to ACPO asked for "details of the statutory powers / Act(s) of Parliament under which ANPR cameras are installed and used as a 'core policing tool' throughout the UK" (see 'Details of statutory powers relating to ANPR'). The response states:
The use of ANPR merely provides information upon which officers may act. It does not require any legislation or statutory powers.
The second request asked for the same information from the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) (see 'ANPR FOI'). The NPIA responded:
The use of ANPR cameras does not require any statutory powers or legislation.
How have we moved from requiring legislation when "Parliamentary time allows" to the country being covered with ANPR cameras, connected to a National ANPR Data Centre (NADC) and the police saying it is a core tool for day to day policing - without the need for any debate let alone statutory powers or primary legislation?
The expansion of ANPR raises serious questions about privacy and is another measure that calls into question the concept of policing by consent. Privacy is not about hiding bad things from the authorities, it is part of what defines life in a free country. Privacy requires a degree of anonymity and anonymity is not a crime. English common law is built upon a right to anonymity implicit in the right to go unchallenged provided you are not doing something specifically legislated against together with the presumption of innocence. Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult for law abiding citizens to enjoy any meaningful sense of anonymity. Police ANPR cameras are linked to multiple databases that make it possible to obtain all sorts of information about a car and its owner. Moreover these databases contain errors - recently Vince Cable MP was stopped having been incorrectly flagged as driving without insurance.
It may be tempting to believe that ANPR is a way of clamping down on criminals, but, even if it were, a freedom removed from one is a freedom removed from all. The standard response of "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" suggests that law abiding citizens do not deserve or need the right to privacy - surely they deserve it most.