To understand the threat to our civil liberties caused by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras it is useful to consider a time before there was a national ANPR network. ANPR cameras were first developed in Britain back in the 1970s by the Home Office's Scientific Development Branch, who developed a system to film number plates on vehicles and then convert the image into electronic letters and numbers. In the 1980s secret tests were conducted in which those letters and numbers were compared to lists of ‘stolen vehicles’.
The New Scientist journalist Steve Connor spotted a secret test camera and shed (computers were much bigger in those days) on the M1. Connor wrote an article about the test and expressed concern that the list of ‘stolen vehicles’ on the Police National Computer was not made up of stolen vehicles alone, it also contained vehicles of ‘interest’ to the police and those ‘seen or checked in noteworthy circumstances’. The Home Office refused to give Connor assurances that the equipment would not eventually be employed in monitoring the movements of vehicles falling into these additional categories.
This murky world of vehicle categories, also known as Indexes, was further taken up by Dr Chris Pounder, who wrote a report on Police Computers for the Greater London Council in 1984 (of all years, oh the irony). Pounder saw that the police were using computers to facilitate random checks and moving towards an ‘intelligence-led’ approach to policing which, as he pointed out, ‘at its worst, is simple gossip.’ He warned that: ‘Random vehicle checking reflects a change in philosophy. Before the technology was available, checks were carried out when a police officer was suspicious. Now, no grounds for suspicion are necessary in the vast majority of cases, and checks are carried out at the whim of individual officers, in case anything has been recorded.’
Wind forward to today. The national network of ANPR cameras, which was introduced by the police with no parliamentary or public debate, acts as a system of automated checkpoints that run random vehicle checks on all vehicles that pass. The concerns expressed by Connor, and beyond. Meanwhile there is virtually no mainstream reporting of the indiscriminate nature of the system – capturing and storing all vehicle movements (for two years in databases that can be data mined using computer software tools) regardless of any offence let alone innocence, guilt or even reasonable suspicion. The warnings expressed by Pounder, and beyond. An interesting point that is also ignored is that the cameras could meet the stated objectives used to sell them to the public without the need for mass surveillance.
To borrow the words of the financial journalist Hartley Withers, the development of mass surveillance systems in the UK, like the credit system that Withers described: ‘is a living thing, that has grown out of its past and is growing into its future. Past, present, and future are thus one continuing process, and no one can hope to understand its present, still less to peer into its future, unless he knows something of the past that is part of them.’