Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)
What is it?
If you drive on pretty much any main road in the UK, you can expect your movements to be logged through ANPR. The network of ANPR cameras in this country can ‘read’ about 100 million number plates per day – that’s a total of about 36 billion per year. Every one of those reads is stored for five years at the National ANPR Data Centre in Hendon, North London, and is subject to analysis for ‘intelligence purposes’.
What’s the history?
ANPR was developed in the UK, at the Police Scientific Development Branch. It was invented in 1976, with prototype systems working by 1979. A national ANPR network was created in March 2006, and has been expanding ever since.
What are the aims?
Supposedly, ANPR is a vital new tool in detecting crime. Advocates claim that it can be used to track stolen cars, increase the number of arrests, and even build up profiles of criminals; all admirable objectives. Less overtly, ANPR is being used to stop motorists for petty offences, with police trawling through drivers’ personal data in search of reasons to arrest. These reasons seem to have more to do with government targets than public safety.
What’s the current situation?
The Coalition has promised statutory regulation on the use of ANPR. On the one hand, this looks likely to limit the degree to which the data can be misused, and place controls on its storage and usage by third parties. On the other, it will probably establish a right in law to collect ANPR data. The Coalition, after making a big noise about re-establishing civil liberties hacked away by Labour, has been noticeably reticent about making good on its promises.
What problems does it cause me?
If you drive on UK roads, your movements are being recorded, stored and potentially subject to analysis. The ANPR database is believed to be at least 30% inaccurate, so you run a constant risk of being stopped and arrested on a flimsy pretext. At worst, you might find yourself in a similar situation to John Catt. His vehicle was ‘flagged’ after he participated in a peaceful protest outside Brighton’s EDO MBM weapons factory. Months later, he was arrested in London and threatened with arrest under the Terrorism Act.
What does the future hold?
It seems likely that there will be some regulation of ANPR over the next year. Whether that regulation will be effective is another matter. Because the Coalition continues to fudge the issue, promising legislation and failing to deliver, this is an area where the future feels very uncertain. In principle, the need for improvements in the law has been recognised. In practice, however, action remains elusive.