Surveillance UK: why this revolution is only the start

The new national surveillance network for tracking car journeys, which has taken more than 25 years to develop, is only the beginning of plans to monitor the movements of all British citizens. The Home Office Scientific Development Branch in Hertfordshire is already working on ways of automatically recognising human faces by computer, which many people would see as truly introducing the prospect of Orwellian street surveillance, where our every move is recorded and stored by machines.

Although the problems of facial recognition by computer are far more formidable than for car number plates, experts believe it is only a matter of time before machines can reliably pull a face out of a crowd of moving people.

If the police and security services can show that a national surveillance operation based on recording car movements can protect the public against criminals and terrorists, there will be a strong political will to do the same with street cameras designed to monitor the flow of human traffic.

A major feature of the national surveillance centre for car numbers is the ability to trawl through records of previous sightings to build up an intelligence picture of a vehicle's precise whereabouts on the road network.

However, the Home Office and police believe that the Big Brother nature of the operation can be justified on the basis of the technology's proven ability to catch criminals. "In simple terms criminals use vehicles. If you want to commit a crime, you're going to use a vehicle," said Frank Whiteley, the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, who leads the project. " There is nothing secretive about it and we don't want it to be secret, because we want people to feel safer, to see that they are protected."

A 13-month pilot scheme between 2003 and 2004 found the performance of the police improved dramatically when they had access automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. Project Laser 2 involved 23 police forces using specially fitted vans with ANPR cameras linked to a police database. It led to a fivefold increase in the arrest rate for frontline officers.

But these mobile units will constitute only a tiny proportion of the many thousands of ANPR cameras that by next year will be feeding more than 35 million number plate "reads" every day into the new national data centre at Hendon, north London, the same site as the Police National Computer.

Mr Whiteley, chairman of the ANPR steering committee, said the intention eventually was to move from the "low thousands" of cameras to the "high thousands".

One camera can cover many motorway lanes. Just two ANPR devices, for instance, cover north and south movements through the 27 lanes of the Dartford crossing toll area on the Thames.

By March next year, most motorways, main roads, town centres and petrol station forecourts will be also covered. Some cameras may be disguised for covert operations but the majority will be ordinary CCTV traffic cameras converted to read number plates. "What we're trying to do as far as we can is to stitch together the existing camera network rather than install a huge number of new cameras," Mr Whiteley said.

More than 50 local authorities have already signed up to allow the police access to data gathered from their CCTV traffic cameras. Northampton, Bradford, Stoke and the City of London have had ANPR cameras in use for some time. Many smaller towns, such as St Albans, Stevenage and Watford are in the process of being wired up.

"We also talking to the commercial sector about their sites, particular garage forecourts. One of the biggest truisms about vehicles is that they have got to fill up with petrol," he explained.

Supermarkets are soon to agree a deal that will lead to all cars entering their garage forecourts having details of their number plates sent to Hendon. In return, the retailers will receive warning information about those drivers most likely to "bilk" - drive off without paying their bill.

The plan beyond March 2006 - when the national data centre goes live - is to expand the capacity of the system to log the time, date and whereabouts of up to 100 million number plates a day. "In crude terms we're interested in between two and three per cent of all vehicles on the roads," Mr Whiteley said.

"We can use ANPR on investigations or we can use it looking forward in a proactive, intelligence way. Things like building up the lifestyle of criminals - where they are going to be at certain times. We seek to link the criminal to the vehicle through intelligence. Vehicles moving on the roads are open to police scrutiny at any time. The Road Traffic Act gives us the right to stop vehicles at any time for any purpose. So criminals on public roads are vulnerable.

"What makes them doubly vulnerable is that most criminals not only burgle and steal, but they also don't bother to tax their vehicles, insure them and things like that," Mr Whiteley said.

Early in the new year the National ANPR Data Centre will be able to cross-check its database against all vehicles lawfully taxed and insured. All unlawful vehicles will be flagged and when they pass an ANPR camera their movements will register as "hits". The Home Office and the police believe that such a surveillance tool will have a dramatic impact on crime detection as well as the public's attitude to traffic policing.

"The first plus is that we can concentrate our resources on the vehicles we should be stopping. The other plus side is that the 97 per cent of law-abiding motorists should never be bothered by that," Mr Whiteley said.

The National ANPR Data Centre is being built alongside the Police National Computer because of the need to be constantly updated with lists of suspect drivers and vehicles. The design of the system will also take into account future changes to the way cars will be recognised, such as electronic vehicle identification - when a unique identity chip is built in to the bodywork.

Identity chips are being considered as part of a new road-pricing system based on a network of roadside radio receivers. Such electronic tags would, however, also allow a car's movements to be recorded without the need of number-plate cameras.

Asked whether ANPR will be as important as the forensic use of fingerprints and DNA profiling, Mr Whiteley replied: "It has the capability to be as revolutionary. I would describe it as an ubiquitous policing tool. You can use it in all sorts of different ways."

HOW THE INFORMATION IS GATHERED

Fixed cameras at strategic sites

Many thousands of traffic cameras on main roads, motorways, ports and petrol stations will read car numbers using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)

Mobile units

Every force will have a fleet of specially fitted police vans with ANPR cameras. These will work alongside high-speed intercept officers

CCTV in towns & cities

Many existing traffic cameras in towns and cities are being converted to read number plates automatically as part of the new national surveillance network

CONSTANT UPDATES

Police National Computer

The PNC will supply updates on vehicles and drivers of interest to the police

Insurance data

Uninsured drivers will be identified from data provided by the insurance industry

MoT data

Vehicles without a valid MoT test certificate will be flagged

Vehicle licence data

All vehicles without a valid tax disc or with unlawful number plates will be identified

WHERE THE INFORMATION GOES

The new National ANPR Data Centre is to be based at Hendon in north London, the site of the existing Police National Computer. It is being designed to store 35 million number plate 'reads' per day, to be expanded to 100 million reads within a couple of years. The time, date and place of each vehicle sighting will be stored for at least two years, with plans to extend this period to five years. Special 'data mining' software can trawl for movements and associations

WHO USES THE INFORMATION

Police

Every police force will have direct computer access to the National ANPR Data Centre. Intelligence officers will be able to access data on a car's movements over a number of years

MI5

The Security Services have special exemption under the Data Protection Act to use ANPR information for purposes of national security. Anti-terrorism will be their main interest

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable