The Home Office has announced more funding to the tune of £15 million to expand the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems throughout the UK's Police Forces.
The pilot projects are claimed as a success, and have resulted in 9 times the arrests by roadside patrols than for similar teams not equipped with ANPR and data links to the Police National Computer, and local Firearms and Drugs intelligence databases.
All well and good, this is the 21st Century and it is impossible to use purely manual methods to catch Road Tax evaders, disqualified drivers etc.when there are nearly 30 million vehicles on the roads.
However, as with all Home Office technology initiatives, there is a danger of throwing away precious civil liberties and individual privacy, in the rush to make headline grabbing crime statistics.
The very short "Case Studies" examples in the "Notes to Editors" (as if the general public are incapable of understanding these themselves) included in the Home Office Press Release show some potential danger areas in the more widespread use of ANPR.
Already prevalent in London, where the ANPR enforced Congestion Charge has led to a large increase in the number of vehicles using false "cloned" number plates based on innocent vehicles with of a similar or identical model and colour, so that any £80 Penalty Notices for not paying the Congestion Charge are sent to the address of an innoocent Registered Keeper of the vehicle with the genuine Number Plate. This will only increase as more road tolling and congestion charge schemes spread through the country, which is what the Department of Transport seems to be planning to encourage.
The Home Office press release cites two "case studies":
"In December 2003 during an ANPR operation, a CCTV camera registered a PNC hit on a 4x4 vehicle. The vehicle was suspected of using clone plates having previously gone through a speed camera in Surrey"
"In June 2004, a Golf TDi drove through a check site and activated a PNC warning that the vehicle may be using false number plates"
When the ANPR system is made even more widespread, the chances ofa roadside patrol stopping and harrassing the innocent vehicle which the cloned or faked number plates are trying to throw suspicion on increases substantially.
If the criminals are also flagged as "Occupant suspected of possession of drugs" or "Occupant suspected of carrying Firearms", then this will be a potentially terryfying experience for the innocent driver of the vehicle, involving armed police officers and perhaps police dogs.
The current Operation Laser equipment only stores information locally within the roadside unit. However, function creep being what it is with IT projects, one can already detect the temptation for widespread automated database trawling in another of the "case studies". It is a short step on the road to hell from:
"A Mini Metro passed through an ANPR intercept site and showed as a hit on a local database. Intelligence suggested that this vehicle had been spotted the previous week in suspicious circumstances and that it was likely to be used by a gang of local shoplifters. The vehicle was stopped and checks made on the occupants"
to 24/7 ANPR linked to the CCTV systems in town centres, ports, airports etc. and to other ANPR systems like the UK Army's Glutton system (used to track vehicle movements to and from Northern Ireland), perhaps in conjunction with Trafficmaster being used to log the movements of the 30 million innocent vehicles over a period of time.
Once such ANPR systems start getting linked together, then the opportunities for corrupt or ideologically motivated police or civilians with access to the database to stalk or track potential victims is huge.
The Home Office report "Driving down crime" (170 page .pdf), which gives more details about the ANPR pilot schemes, also contains the worrying reccommendation to create yet another massive national database.
"There is a need for a national data warehouse to hold all vehicle intelligence to be read in real time by all ANPR users nationally. In turn, this data warehouse would also hold ANPR reads and hits as a further source of vehicle intelligence, providing great benefits to major crime and terrorism enquiries."
Even though this very same report criticises the innaccuracy of the Driver Vehicle Licesnsing Agency records, it assumes that somehow the same problems would not affect this new system.
Any increase in the use of ANPR by the Police must only happen within a framework of privacy checks and balances to protect the the innocent and must not become part of a generalised state surveillance system.