Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) civil liberties threat

How do you feel about every major journey you take in your car being tracked by a network of cameras?

This is the situation in the UK, where we have the dubious distinction of being the most surveillance-heavy state on the planet. Since March 2006, a network of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras has been in place to track car journeys in towns, cities, ports and petrol station forecourts, as well as motorways and other major roads. If you use a car, Big Brother really IS watching you.

Up to 100 million number plates can be read every day by the cameras. Once scanned, the data is stored on the National Police Computer in London where, supposedly, it is used to “deny criminals use of the road”. If that’s the case, though, how come it needs to be kept for five years?

This is yet another example of an idea with a tiny seed of sense behind it being expanded to the point where it becomes a blot on our collective liberty. The grasping need to record and store data from every car on the road seems sinister and, for the purposes it is apparently intended, wholly out of proportion. It speaks of an authoritarian streak in government and policing that, by treating every motorist as a potential suspect, does more harm than good.

More pertinently, it’s an authoritarian streak found in a government whose members claimed that they would reverse the creeping suffocation of civil liberties so prevalent under New Labour. According to the Surveillance Commissioners (who are all former High Court judges), mass surveillance using ANPR is illegal. So our government and police force are actually committing a criminal act by sanctioning the maintenance and usage of the network.

To add insult to injury, they are – of course – doing so with public money. This Kable article estimates total spending on ANPR to date at £23.6 million as of July this year. In a small chink of light, the same article notes that home secretary Theresa May has announced tighter regulation of ANPR cameras. Let’s hope that move signals a shift in attitude towards the indiscriminate gathering of data on ordinary citizens, and keep doing what we can to push for an abandonment of the surveillance imperative altogether.

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