Home > Big Brother > This Vehicle Registration Plate Surveillance System Is a Warning to Us All

This Vehicle Registration Plate Surveillance System Is a Warning to Us All

July 17, 2011


Knight RiderNo CCTV has teamed up with Privacy International and Big Brother Watch to challenge the legality of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) [also known as ALPR in North America] camera network in the UK. A complaint has been sent to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) against a so-called ANPR “Ring of Steel” that is being constructed around the town of Royston in Hertfordshire — but for Royston read any town in the UK.


The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has constructed a network of cameras across the country without any public or parliamentary debate. These cameras record the number plate of each and every vehicle that passes, sometimes taking a photograph of the car and its occupants. The number plate is then compared to a “hotlist” of vehicles of interest, and whether or not the plate is on that list (ie a “hit”), all information gathered is stored for between two and five years. A Hertfordshire Police Authority report reveals the details of the data retention periods:

Currently number plate pictures are held for 2 years. Car pictures are held for 90 days. “Hits” information on text and number pictures are held for 5 years and car pictures are held for 2 years.

[‘Final report of the Topic Group on Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) Technology use within Hertfordshire Constabulary’, p. 9]

The data collected from number plate cameras can be linked to multiple databases such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) database and the Motor Insurance Database Application System (MIDAS) which in turn can be used to identify the owner of the vehicle. The resulting database of vehicle movements can then be data-mined by the police to look for patterns or track individuals. The police are at great pains to state that they do not target law abiding motorists, but the system has the potential to be a mass surveillance tool and if the police are not interested in motorists who are not on hotlists then it begs the question why do they gather this information.

The National Policing Improvement Agency(NPIA)’s ANPR web page states:

At the end of March 2011, the NADC was receiving approximately 15 million reads per day, with over 11 billion vehicle sightings stored. This body of information on vehicle movements is key to the value of ANPR.

Data Mining

The data collected from ANPR cameras is stored in databases at the local police force level, known as Back Office Facility (BOF), and also in a national database called the National ANPR Data Centre (NADC). Up until now many campaign groups have focused their criticisms largely on the national database but the complaint by No CCTV and co also highlights issues with the local databases. It is the local BOF databases that can be used alongside data mining tools such as those developed by Northgate Public Services.

Our complaint quotes Northgate Public Services’ brochure The ANPR Intelligence Dividend, which states:

Northgate’s Advanced Data Miner enhancement for BOF 2.3 allows users (not just analysts) to access the 2% of reads that result in hits, but more importantly, to access the 98% that offer intelligent leads. A senior investigating officer on a major crime will be very interested in that 98% because they will be able to say “don’t tell me what I now, tell me what I don’t know”.

[‘The ANPR Intelligence Dividend — Northgate BOF 2.3 Advanced Data Miner’, p. 1]

The original rhetoric used to sell number plate cameras was that they could “deny criminals the use of the road”, but the involvement of Northgate Public Services shows that the ANPR network is potentially about much more than spotting uninsured drivers and could easily be used as a mass surveillance tool.

More data-mining and data-sharing

The latest ACPO ANPR Strategy document points out that the police have aspirations to move beyond the current National ANPR Infrastructure (NAI), signaling that perhaps data sharing between force Back Office Facility systems may make the national data centre superfluous. The Strategy states:

  • The capabilities of the analytical tools provided by the current BOF product have been overtaken by the “out-of-the-box” functionality of other software products. For example, 37 forces have purchased i2 which offers considerably better tools and which could be used much more effectively than the BOF Data Miner;
  • Some forces are looking to be able to process more “reads” than the current BOF system can handle;
  • The thinking about the potential use and benefits of NADC has moved on and it is now clear that many of the original objectives of the NADC can be achieved more cheaply and effectively by other means (eg BOF to BOF exchange)

ACPO ‘ANPR Strategy for the Police Service — 2010-2013′, Appendix A — ‘Re-evaluation of the scope of the NAI’, p. 15]

Key Complaint Issues

The ICO complaint looks at several issues relating to Royston’s “ring of steel” including the lawfulness of the cameras, the vague and unproven specified purposes of the scheme, the retention of the information collected and whether such a mass surveillance system is acceptable or necessary in a democratic society. The ICO is the UK body responsible for administering the Data Protection Act.

The complaint points out that number plate cameras do not meet the lawfulness requirement that underpins the Data Protection Act on the grounds that:

  • ANPR has no statutory framework
  • if a statutory framework were introduced now this could not have the effect of legalising previous use of ANPR as legislation cannot be applied retrospectively
  • the specified purposes for the Royston ANPR cameras do not meet the “lawful justification or excuse” requirement of lawfulness
  • even with a statutory framework and/or a “lawful justification or excuse” the use of ANPR would still be unlawful as it constitutes a major assault on our common law foundations and the Rule of Law

[‘Royston ANPR “ring of steel”‘ Complaint, p. 4]

No place in a democracy

The national ANPR network is the biggest surveillance network that the public has never heard of. The complaint recounts some of the reasons given for a “ring of steel” around the small town of Royston. For instance Inspector Andy Piper of Hertfordshire Constabulary told a March 2010 North Hertfordshire District Council meeting that:

The cameras were needed for Royston as it was in a location of importance on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, with people from those counties and from Bedfordshire also travelling through the area.

[Minutes of Wednesday 17th March 2010 Royston and District Committee]

The complaint points out that:

It is hard to see how the fact that people from neighbouring counties might travel through an area would mean that it is necessary in a democratic society to record and store details of all such movements and retain personal data in the form of the car photo for between 90 days and five years and the license plate photo in a centralised database for between two and five years.

In the past totalitarian regimes instituted road blocks to check citizens’ papers at a series of internal borders. The police use of ANPR as a mass surveillance tool to record the movements of all cars and the justification given by Hertfordshire Constabulary for a ring of cameras around Royston such that “no vehicle could enter or leave Royston without being recorded by a camera” because the town is in “a location of importance on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire” is surely equivalent to an automated checkpoint system that cannot be necessary in a democratic society to meet any of the purposes set out by Hertfordshire Constabulary.

[‘Royston ANPR “ring of steel”‘ Complaint, p. 12]

Royston is a town with a warning

The idea of a surveillance “ring of steel” is not new — such systems have appeared in towns and cities from London to Bradford in the last decade. But what is new is the acceptability of the use of a phrase first coined to describe an extreme anti-terrorism measure which now simply constitutes standard police operations.

A casual internet search reveals that these schemes are popping up around the country, with no public debate about the use of such an indiscriminate and unwarranted mass surveillance system.

Last year a network of 169 ANPR cameras was created to encircle the Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook areas of Birmingham as part of “Project Champion, which was funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee (ACPO — TAM). Thankfully a campaign run by Steve Jolly succeeded in getting the cameras removed. And active dissent is growing — in Northern Ireland a campaign Big Brother is Watching has been set up to fight the expanding network of ANPR cameras there, and there are plans to organise a public meeting and form a campaign in Royston.

We must not be complacent – only a well-informed, vigilant and active public can guard against the excesses of state power. The Royston complaint is only the first step — all those concerned by the national ANPR network must take part in the struggle ahead.

The full complaint can be downloaded here.

For more info see www.no-cctv.org.uk

  1. February 16, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Everyone is responsible in the roads safety. Plate surveillance system has its negative and positive effect to the people. Authorities has to used it wisely for our own good.


    Importance of a Number Plate

  2. September 19, 2011 at 4:18 am

    The license plates with all the above specifications shall be issued by the registering authority and fitted by the approved license plates manufacturers or their dealers

  3. July 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    There are times when I want to go back to owning someing small and efficient but then I turn the key on my v8 and those thoughts seem silly.

  1. August 3, 2011 at 11:42 pm
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