A Daily Mail report reveals that Police "use CCTV to photograph three billion car number plates a year". The Mail story is based on figures obtained under Freedom of Information from 26 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales relating to use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems during 2008.
According to the recently released National Policing Improvement Agency's Annual Report, ANPR is:
the surveillance capability that uses mobile and fixed road-side sensors to read vehicle number plates and instantaneously cross-match them with information and intelligence held on the Police National Computer and linked systems
The "linked systems" (database systems) that ANPR links to are primarily the Motor Insurance Database Application System (MIDAS) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) database. But a 2004 study listed other local or other ad hoc databases that include:
– Customs and Excise databases, for example tobacco bootleggers
– outstanding speed camera tickets
– regional stolen vehicle databases, for example ELVIS which covers Merseyside
– PIKE, a national database of LGV and commercial vehicles of interest
– Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) databases
By linking surveillance camera images of vehicles to the details of the vehicle's owners via the DVLA database allows those with access to ANPR to track citizens' movements around the UK. The standard excuse for this level of surveillance is that such systems are "denying criminals the use of the road". The theory goes that criminals can use roads to move around, so if we monitor all vehicles some will be driven by criminals and so we'll catch criminals and reduce crime. Once again law abiding citizens' rights are being discarded supposedly in the fight against crime. To make matters worse the data collected by ANPR cameras is stored for several years - at least two years but perhaps up to five years.
In the past repressive regimes such as the Soviet Union used roadside checkpoints to periodically check drivers papers. Up until now the absence of such checkpoints is what made the UK a "free country" that respected the rights of its citizens. ANPR however is an automated checkpoint system that along with other surveillance cameras undermines the status of the UK as a free country.
As usual we hear cries of "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear" which mask the Common Law right to do anything that isn't specifically legislated against - such as driving a car - and which presume that the systems work correctly and are effective. But the accuracy of the data in the databases behind ANPR has been called into question. The National Audit Office (NAO) found a third of DVLA's records could be wrong and an evaluation of an ANPR pilot published in October 2004 ('Driving crime down - Denying criminals the use of the road') revealed that the accuracy of DVLA data was just 40% and also noted that "Accuracy of DVLA databases declined over the study period" [page 98, Database Issues].
Such high error rates mean that innocent people could be identified as criminals. Then there is the issue of "associated vehicles" or convoys described by Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the ACPO steering committee on automatic number plate recognition, in a 2005 Independent article. Apparently criminals often travel in convoys and so vehicles that pass an ANPR system at about the same time could be tagged as being part of a convoy.
The Devon & Cornwall police's Roads Policing Strategy 2008-2010 in its ANPR section states:
Full use will be made of available technology, in particular ANPR systems to ensure free passage for the innocent motorist
Since when did innocent law abiding citizens need costly and illiberal surveillance systems to ensure them free passage? And how did such a massive surveillance system get built across the UK?
The National Policing Improvement Agency submitted a memorandum to the House of Lords Constitution Committee's 'Surveillance: Citizens and the State' inquiry in December 2007 which gives some background:
Since 2002, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has promoted development of ANPR as a core policing tool, in conjunction with key partner agencies. ANPR is now overseen nationally by a multi-agency Programme Board, chaired by ACPO, with NPIA, HMIC, SOCA and the Security Service, amongst others, as members. ANPR has proven to be a very successful operational tool, enhancing the ability of the police to intercept, and arrest, a wide range of criminals using the roads.
In April 2007, the national work on ANPR was incorporated into NPIA which, under continued ACPO leadership, is responsible for operational ANPR services at a national level; a programme of Assisted Implementation in Forces beginning in autumn 2007; and co-ordination of the wider ANPR development programme.
In 2005 ACPO produced a three year ANPR Strategy (2005-2008) in which they are proud to announce:
The British Police Service are world leaders in the application of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology, a technology that was itself invented in the United Kingdom
According to a 2007 PA Consulting publication 'Realising the benefits of Automatic Number Plate Recognition': "the Home Office has provided £32 million for the development of the ANPR infrastructure programme in England and Wales".
And the expansion of ANPR was laid out in the Home Office's 5 year plan (2004-2008)Confident Communities in a Secure Britain which says the police will benefit from:
increasing use of automatic number plate recognition technology, by increasing the number of strategically placed and mobile cameras, and by improving the data linkages between the system and the DVLA and Police National Computer to help identify cars of interest to the police [page 72 - Improving police resources and intelligence to catch and convict more offenders]
Yet a 2008 consultation, as part of the Home Office's 'Analysis of Policing and Community Safety' (APACS), with responses from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Police Forces, Police Authorities, Local Government, Government departments, regional Government Offices, Fire & Rescue authorities, and representatives of the banking and financial sectors found that:
There was little support for the strategic roads policing (ANPR) measures as the majority of respondents felt that these measures were output (rather than outcome) focussed, and were management information at best
But still the technology rolls on, being sold as the latest silver bullet to solve all problems. For instance the National Policing Improvement Agency announced their "approach to policing major music events" which includes ANPR:
The team explored good practice on covert surveillance and agreed on a dedicated Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) database to be established which would be able to target travelling criminals who are responsible for major organised criminal activity
The National Policing Improvement Agency's Annual Report details the scale of the system and some of the data-sharing that is planned:
The Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) Back Office Facility (BOF) II system has now been deployed to all but one force. The implementation of this system means that all these forces in England and Wales now have the ability to supply data to the National ANPR Data Centre.
The ANPR infrastructure has the capability to receive and store 50 million ANPR reads per day. The National ANPR Data Centre (NADC) receives around 8 million reads per day. In due course, Scottish forces and PSNI will also be connected to NADC, as will other national policing and security agencies. These include British Transport Police, Serious Organised Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Security Service.
Freedom of information figures obtained by the Daily Mail reveal that Devon and Cornwall police read and stored 64 million number plates last year after a network of cameras were installed in the area. According to the May edition of their Billboard magazine Devon and Cornwall police also took part, in the Torbay and Plymouth areas, in Operation Utah "a regional, multiagency operation which uses ANPR equipment to crack down on those breaking the law on the roads" involving "100 police officers from five regional forces in the south west, together with staff from the Vehicles and Operators Services Agency (VOSA), Department of Work & Pensions, HM Customs Road Fuel Team, Environment Agency and Trading Standards, operated from a number of locations in the area".
Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon told the Daily Mail:
It is a Big Brother state which assumes and suspects that everyone, at any time, might commit an offence and so gathers evidence against you in advance. It is an unsettling symptom of something that has grown up without peoples' recognition, understanding and assent.
ANPR cameras are harder to fight than traditional CCTV systems, where decisions are made primarily by local authorities and so can be challenged at a local level. ANPR is being driven by central government and a large number of organisations. Rolling back the spread of number plate recognition cameras will require people in the UK to speak out against the technology, to hold politicians and policy makers to account and demand that the systems be removed. It is up to the people of this country to decide on the limits of state snooping. If we do not we can expect the state to continue its march towards total surveillance.
The proponents of ANPR are ready to exploit whatever opportunity they can to push the technology forwards. The National Police Improvement Agency's ANPR web page says:
We are also working with the Olympics Delivery Authority to ensure ANPR makes a major contribution to the 2012 Olympic Games security operation
The race is clearly on to expand surveillance networks in the UK before law abiding citizens wake up and demand respect for their freedoms and privacy.