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
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
"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
"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
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)
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
Police National Computer
The PNC will supply updates on vehicles and drivers of interest to the police
Uninsured drivers will be identified from data provided by the insurance
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
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
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
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