Police bring in 'Big Brother' vans to make instant checks on cars

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The Independent Online

Unmarked police vans packed with "Big Brother" cameras and state of the art computer technology are being used to track vehicles suspected of being used by criminals and terrorists.

Unmarked police vans packed with "Big Brother" cameras and state of the art computer technology are being used to track vehicles suspected of being used by criminals and terrorists.

The police used them on roads to Bournemouth and Brighton during the party conferences to watch for terrorist movements.

At least a dozen forces have thevans, which can read the number plates of passing vehicles and are connected via microwave links with police computer databases. They can identify a suspect car within a fraction of a second. The technology was originally designed to tackle terrorism and monitor the movements of the IRA.

Last week The Sun, in a two-page article headlined "White Van Cam", published photographs of one of the vans in Birmingham with its two camera ports at the back open on a busy main road.

According to the newspaper it was being used to trap speeding motorists, and could even spot out-of-date tax discs.

The Conservative transport spokesman, Bernard Jenkin, said: "Cameras should only be used at blackspots. They should be clearly visible and signed to deter. But these vindictive and underhand tactics contribute little to road safety."

The next day The Sun reported a van had been seen on the A338 between Southampton and Bournemouth,venue for the Conservative conference. Hampshire police refused to discuss its operations. The newspaper suspected it was for trapping speeding Tories. It quoted the MP John Redwood saying: "It's very unfair that they are targeting delegates at the conference in this way."

However Chief Inspector Paul Diehl, of West Midlands Police, said the vans were not for use against ordinary motorists. "This van cannot trap speeding motorists and neither does it read tax discs. This van can read number plates and then check them against number plates. This is designed to catch criminals without troubling ordinary motorists."

In the Birmingham operation any vehicle tagged on the police computer as stolen or suspected of being used by criminals was pulled up by motorcycle police two hundred yards up the road. West Midlands Police said that in the two months they had used the van it had led to 200 arrests.

One intelligence expert said: "These are the new tools against terrorism and serious crime. Why would the police need a van packed with equipment just to stop motorists for speeding?"

Fixed cameras that can read number plates have been used in Northern Ireland from 1997, to track terrorist movements.They were linked with computers used by the security services in Northern Ireland.

The automatic number plate reading system was first used in the City of London in 1996, when permanent checkpointswere set up after the Bishopsgate bombing. Versions of the fixed cameras are now in use elsewhere around Britain. Those in vans are known as "covert mobiles".

According to the intelligence expert the number plates of all cars going into an area can be recorded. "This can be examined by police looking for patterns, for example, regular trips abroad. But more immediately, if a suspect vehicle is logged the police can stop them on the spot."

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