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London charge zone is security cordon too, says mayor

Happily foresees time when all roads are watched like this. Or preferably, better...

And with one bound, the Ken formerly known as Red repositions himself as a Big Brother privacy nightmare. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has previously, as we noted yesterday, claimed that data from the cameras in London's congestion charge zone would not be recorded and used for other purposes.

But that was then and this is now. Congestion charging went live today, Ken has been running round doing radio and TV interviews, and The Register has been running around behind him sweeping up commitments to control-freakery and privacy invasions in the name of security. Thanks to our team of spotters we have sightings in Sky News, LBC and Capital FM studios, in all of which Ken played the security card.

He's claimed that the cameras can be used to view drivers' faces, speaking on Sky News and LBC, and our LBC spotter tells us "Livingstone explicitly confirmed that the cameras were controllable remotely, had variable angles and zoom levels and would be used when needed to assist law enforcement efforts." The best stuff we've had so far however is the Capital phone-in, a transcript of which is available here.

There are several notable passages, this one being particularly so:

"Even if, at this stage, I lost my nerve and said we wouldn't do it we would still keep those cameras there for security reasons. They?re much more sophisticated than the old ones and the police will be able to use them. So if a terrorist group is trying to drive in we can identify the car, it can be flagged up instantly and we can even possibly be in a position where we can recognise the driver. So there's now an added benefit that we didn't anticipate when we thought about this but since Sept 11th central London will be dramatically safer, not impossible for anybody to get in, but a lot more difficult for a villain to get in and do their damage."

A word here about the technology being used. There are two kinds of camera, one an infrared plate recognition unit, and another producing a continuous video stream of the traffic. So if - for example - your plate is obscured, or you want to contest Transport for London's claim that you were in the zone without paying, TfL's techies at Capita would attempt to produce evidence by extracting images of the vehicle in question from the video. It's these cameras Ken's talking about here, not the plate recognition ones.

Now, if TfL is using the video purely for its own enforcement purposes, then it is likely to have to retain video for at least several weeks. Time for the fines to go out, time for them to be paid or not, time to use them for chasing purposes as and when people go to ground. So actually TfL's retention need probably squares nicely with what the security services would find handy.

The cameras may be good, but there is no way they can do facial recognition. You might, if you were lucky and if you were controlling a camera which you were already training on a suspect vehicle, see someone you recognised. But it's wildly unlikely that the police would score any direct hits from speculative trawls through the archive footage. In that context, Livingstone's claim that it will be "a lot more difficult for a villain to get in" are somewhat imaginative. For now.

Livingstone is anticipating next generation technology:

"... in 4 or 5 years time there will be satellite technology which will be much more sophisticated and you could exemptions and have a scheme where that happens. This is a crude system. It's the best available at the moment, but in a few years time once we've got satellite and once the government has legislated that every car should have a transponder, like they do in every American states or Europe that just registers it as you go in and out, then you'll get not just a more sophisticated congestion charging system but you'll get charged for the length of time you're on a particular motorway. I suspect that in ten year's time we will have moved away from vast petrol duties and car tax and all that and you'll actually be taxed for the use of your car rather than just having one."

The system he describes here is similar to the one already deployed in Singapore, although we fear he's being a tad imaginative regarding the US and Europe. Note however that as he now sees the cameras as being applicable in a purely security role, they are not going to go away when the satellites kick in.

You need, obviously, some way to detect when a car with a disabled GPS unit is using the road, otherwise there's no enforcement. So you keep the video cameras, and maybe you enhance them. It would be handy, purely from an enforcement point of view, if TfL could get a clear shot of the driver's face as well as the car, wouldn't it? Facial recognition would be useful too. One sees peculiar and developing synergies between road pricing systems, security and control, even without the Ken formerly known as Red happily mixing the two together.

So although they can't do it all now, they're going to try. Livingstone wants to extend the London system out from the central zone, and as he was telling Capital he foresees a time when all roads in the UK are priced this way. And therefore policed this way. As he says: "I have never doubted that the system technically will work. The question is, is it politically acceptable to people." Indeed.

Fortunately, we're British and therefore entirely incapable of running anything like a proper police state. Take this clip from Ken on dealing with people who don't pay the charge: "Well, they will be pursued as they would if they had parked in a bus lane...."

Ken, bless him, does not drive and is therefore utterly unaware of the state of London's bus lanes. If TfL goes after charge dodgers as hard as it goes after all of the people parked in bus lanes, then there's no point in anybody paying, and somebody should tell Ken. (Hint: Ken, when you're in a taxi - which we hear is quite a lot - why does it zigzag so much, given that it's allowed in the bus lane anyway?)

But there's more of an edge to his follow-up, a populist appeal to the 'I pay my rates' vote: "... the one thing you've got to remember in London is that 1 person in 10 in London hasn't registered their car, hasn't paid tax and hasn't got insurance, they're just freeloading off everybody else - they're most probably the people who will most persistently not pay. A quarter of them are being sought by the police for other offences. It won't just be that some poor old guy turns up and clamps your vehicle, you'll most likely have police there in protective gear because you might be dealing with a rather serious character."

There you go - if you don't pay, you're probably a serial criminal/terrorist with ricin about the premises anyway, and Ken's going to sic Special Branch on you. Synergy again, no? ®

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