The Royston ring of steel: Data watchdog warns police that surveillance scheme in rural Hertfordshire town is 'unlawful'

Monitoring of car number plates by CCTV cameras is ‘excessive’,  rules data Information Commissioner's Office

A police surveillance scheme that records the number-plate of every car entering a small Hertfordshire town – dubbed locally as Royston’s “Ring of Steel” – has been deemed “unlawful” and “excessive” by the UK’s data watchdog.

The local police force has been warned by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that its “extensive” system must stop processing the data until further privacy impact checks have been carried out.

It is thought the ruling could have wider significance on the use of number-plate surveillance in other areas of the country.

The seven automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras were erected by Hertfordshire Constabulary three years ago in a bid to reduce crime. But they have since been criticised by privacy campaigners for infringing on car drivers’ rights.

The ICO weighed in to the debate yesterday when it said that the constabulary “failed to carry out any effective impact assessments before introducing the system of cameras” and had not been able satisfactorily to justify their use. The ICO’s head of enforcement, Stephen Eckersley, said: “It is difficult to see why a small rural town such as Royston requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town 24 hours a day. The use of ANPR cameras and other forms of surveillance must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to address.

After detailed inquiries, including consideration of the information Hertfordshire Constabulary provided, we found that this simply wasn’t the case in Royston.”

He added: “We hope that this enforcement notice sends a clear message to all police forces that the use of ANPR cameras needs to be fully justified before they are installed. This includes carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the impact on the privacy of the road-using public.”

The investigation was triggered when the privacy groups Big Brother Watch, Privacy International and No CCTV issued a joint complaint.

Calling it a “landmark decision,” No CCTVs co-founder Charles Farrier said: “The ICO has validated our view that blanket vehicle tracking should have no place in a democratic society. The ANPR camera network amounts to an automated checkpoint system that is the stuff of totalitarianism.”

Yet a spokesperson for Hertfordshire Constabulary said the cameras would continue to be used for the next three months while it worked to comply with the criteria issued by the ICO. He said the force had already taken “considerable analysis of the justification for the use of these cameras” but would not be appealing against the decision. 

“The Constabulary intends to continue using ANPR cameras, which deliver very substantial policing benefits, but also to ensure that its particular deployment of such cameras is – and is seen to be – fully justified.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss