Privacy in peril: Vast network of roadside cameras pose 'very real risk' says surveillance regulator

Government’s Surveillance Commissioner warns about dangers of indiscriminate data trawling

Paul Peachey
Saturday 19 April 2014 10:17 BST

Members of the public face “a very real risk” to their privacy from the huge roadside surveillance network that captures millions of motorists every day, the Government’s Surveillance Commissioner has warned. In an interview with The Independent, Tony Porter urges that clear guidance be provided to ensure “innocent” people do not fall victim to roadside automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras which have been the centre of concerns over the rise of surveillance in Britain.

The regulator for Britain’s state-run security cameras has put police on notice over their use of personal data after a series of investigations into the ANPR system, which has been described by campaigners as the “biggest surveillance network that most people have never heard of”.

The use of the system is part of wider concerns over a growing “surveillance society” as Mr Porter revealed how cheap home CCTV cameras have led to a surge in snooping disputes between neighbours.

Local authorities control more than 50,000 cameras while thousands of roadside cameras collect owner information on more than 18 million car journeys every day, in a swift and unregulated expansion over the past 30 years.

Police have declined to say how many cameras are used for the ANPR system, but it has the capacity to check information on up to 50 million cars every day, and cross-check it with other police databases to trace wanted offenders.

The information, which according to police has led to important intelligence gathering and tens of thousands of arrests every year, is retained for up to two years, even when there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.

But reports into three cases that highlighted failings in the system prompted the police watchdog to warn that the scale of the system meant it was “impossible” to achieve its full potential. In April 2012, the database held almost 11.2 billion vehicle sightings.

In one case, a registered sex offender killed a young woman despite triggering eight “hits” on the system over three days, because he was wanted for arson and theft, but was not arrested.

In another case, a 16-year-old girl was killed by a police car travelling at up to 94mph, which was chasing a car that had triggered its in-car ANPR system. It transpired that the information was out of date and should have been removed from the system.

“I think there has to be very clear guidance to officers about the way in which ANPR is used and once it has been used, ensuring that data is removed or at least is updated to that effect. I think that’s crucial,” said Mr Porter, a former senior police anti-terror officer.

“There is a very real risk that if systems aren’t adhered to innocent members of the public could be put at risk of having their privacy impacted upon. I can see the value of understanding how many ANPR cameras there are. There are other concerns that have been expressed … the large data-grab of information and the period of retention of that information.”

The Commissioner currently has regulatory power only over state-controlled cameras in public places – and has no power of compliance, leading campaigners to complain that the position is toothless. Emma Carr, the deputy director of Big Brother Watch, said: “If we are going to bring proper accountability to CCTV and ANPR the Commissioner needs proper powers to enforce the law. Without them his words, however sensible, will continue to fall on deaf ears.”

High street electrical stores sell home-use cameras for less than £50 that promise high-quality images, a 20-metre night range, and images stored directly on a video recorder.

Planning permission is not needed, and a new code to regulate the use of cameras by police and local authorities does not apply to homeowners. The affordability of the camera technology and the inability of authorities to take action have led to long-running disputes between neighbours, in some cases with cameras lined up along their boundaries.

“I’ve got a great deal of sympathy for anybody who feels that their own private space is being invaded by the use of a CCTV camera employed by a neighbour,” said Mr Porter.

“Police have harassment legislation and there may be some potential relief in the High Court for invasion of privacy but they are fairly complex processes for a disgruntled member of the public to go through.”

Mr Porter said he favoured working with industry rather than legislation to try to resolve some of the domestic CCTV disputes. But Ms Carr, of Big Brother Watch, said: “The glaring omission of private CCTV cameras from any regulation must be addressed by Parliament urgently.”

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