Police ANPR: Ring of steel for MATTER, sieves of steel for rural cops

MATTER, each issue of which consists of a single long feature article on science and technology, has run some great stories since its launch last autumn (as well as trying to find new ways to make journalism pay).

In my humble and biased opinion, I think it has just published another one: ‘Ring of steel’ by James Bridle, which I co-edited and is based partly on my Freedom of Information-based research into how the police use automatic numberplate recognition. It’s available from MATTER.

To accompany it, I have written a blogpost for Medium on that research (context here from my Guardian article of last August, and I have also republished a couple of the original articles on this from 2009 and 2010). The Medium post also offers some thoughts on police ANPR use, particularly outside big cities:

Many forces had simply placed cameras near their borders — something which perhaps makes sense if you feel you’re defending your area, but also helped explain the odd locations. Rural forces appeared to envy London’s ring of steel, but with vast areas to cover with a few dozen cameras they were actually setting up sieves…

In terms of what they represent, you can see these police cameras in different ways. You can see them as a crucial method for tracking criminal activity — the police clearly do. Or you can see them as a nasty example of the surveillance state with a pointlessly long retention period.

I see them as a botched project. ANPR is a technique that is arguably proportionate to the security threats to central London, but it was extended across the country by local police forces who often thought parochially. They chose permanent locations for non-covert cameras on busy roads that had to remain secret to be effective. Perhaps they planned to build up their networks over time, but then the central money stopped flowing.

The M5 cameras I noticed nearly five years ago in Devon and Cornwall’s territory are still there, by the way. There’s one covering each lane, plus the hard shoulder, in both directions.

There’s no sign to tell you a camera is taking down your details, but you can easily see them in different ways, whether it’s from the road or through Google Streetview. You could skip a stretch of the motorway to drive around them with no great difficulty; Britain’s roads have evolved to allow movement, not to help the police monitor it.

The result is that they just don’t work. Outside a few fully encircled areas, the reality is that anyone with the motivation has an excellent chance of dropping through a hole in these sieves of steel.