Open up the numberplate recognition camera system

Police are reluctant to reveal locations of automatic numberplate recognition cameras, but their secretive approach is not working

This decision was reversed by a later tribunal in 2012, but the evidence shed new light on police ANPR systems, covered in this Guardian article.

Powered by article titled “Open up the numberplate recognition camera system” was written by SA Mathieson, for on Tuesday 17th May 2011 14.00 UTC

Britain has an abundance of surveillance cameras, perhaps 1.85m in total. Data on the owners and locations of these cameras is generally publicly available; speed camera sites are embedded in satnav systems, for example. Also, the Data Protection Act entitles you to obtain images of yourself on camera. These two are tied together by necessity: it is tricky to exercise your data protection rights if you don’t know which organisation has the images and you can’t say on which camera you were caught. These seem pretty sensible safeguards, given the levels of surveillance.

However, the police appear to not agree. Police forces believe their network of 4,000-plus automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras – which in England and Wales are used to store the details and pictures of every vehicle passing a camera, with some data kept for two years – is exempt from these reasonable measures. By overturning a decision by the information commissioner, the first-tier tribunal for information rights has recently decided otherwise – though the decision, which applied specifically to Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, has since been appealed against by that force.

This all follows from the police’s refusal to provide me with the locations of its fixed ANPR cameras when I made a freedom of information request in July 2009, despite their use in Torquay, Brixham and Dawlish having been featured on ITV1’s Crimefighters and on their own website.

Aside from the location issue, the police have damaged the trust placed in them over ANPR. Officers were accused of misleading councillors in Birmingham when trying to install cameras in Muslim neighbourhoods, as part of the now-abandoned Project Champion, and ANPR has repeatedly been used to stop people who have committed no crime but whose numberplates have been spotted at protests.

On announcing its appeal against the tribunal’s decision, Devon and Cornwall said that one of its cameras in Plymouth had recently helped catch a drug dealer. But it did so because the system said his car was not insured. While there is an argument that major criminals break minor laws too, it also suggests that drug dealers can improve their chances of avoiding arrest by insuring their cars.

Nevertheless, the police say that releasing the locations would reduce the usefulness of their fixed ANPR cameras. But their usefulness already seems to be declining. The number of vehicles of interest spotted by Devon and Cornwall’s cameras fell from 1.24m in 2008 to 255,000 last year, 0.3% of the vehicles passing. The constabulary says the fall is down to changes in the watchlists used, but with just 45 cameras connected to the national database, perhaps some people “of interest” are simply driving around them.

It’s true that the locations are officially secret. But cameras of a similar design and configuration to the ANPR ones used to police London’s congestion charge (the output of which is also fed into the police’s database) have been popping up around the UK’s roads over the last few years. If they are indeed part of the secret police camera network, they aren’t exactly well disguised – and outside cities, they appear to be not so much a network as a set of easily avoidable dots.

In cities, there is a case for unavoidable, publicised, circles of ANPR: City of London police used to discuss its “ring of steel” cameras with pride.

But across most of the country, temporary sites would seem to be a better bet, as there would not be much time to spot them before they moved. In every case, ANPR locations should be published, perhaps after use for mobile units. That would allow currently denied data access rights and informed public discussion of a privacy-invasive form of policing – and might produce better results for the police. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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